Changing the Trajectory of Non-Readers

Pattie Sloan and Joan Flora: two teachers challenging classroom status quo.

We want to be clear: we fell in love with teaching a long time ago, and long before that, we fell in love with books, which led us to love writing, which led us to love listening and speaking.  It’s our literacy version of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.  We know we’re blessed; we fell in love with literacy and stayed in love.


But many of our students are not so lucky. Many of them tell us that they don’t read, but that they expect to attend college next year where the average reading load is 200 pages weekly for each three unit state college class and 300 pages weekly for each three unit credit in private colleges (see Why Are College Students Poor Readers?). What strikes us is that our students don’t register shock and awe when we share these stats with them.  Instead, they tell us that they’ve already gotten into the college of their choice.  That’s great because we love access, but we also temper opportunity with reality: the U.S. has the highest college drop-out rate in the world; the most stated reason for dropping out?  The reading demand (see Let’s be Honest About Graduation Rates).

And it’s not just the volume of reading that college students face; it’s the rigor.  Check out the highest frequency words for ELA literacy from the Common Core to prepare students for the demands of college:


Anyone else think we have a problem?!  Many of our high school students claim they used to read; heck, they even liked it, but something changed and their reading enjoyment dropped:


Teacher-author Penny Kittle of Book Love outlines the following steps to “charm” students back into reading:

  • Give students time to read in school–if reading doesn’t happen in school, it’s almost certainly not going to happen outside of school.  Using Silent Sustained Reading in the classroom allows students to appreciate books and great stories that reflect teens’ lives.  Kelly Gallagher, author of the inspiring Readicide offers this one-pager to monitor students’ reading.
  • Create a classroom library of compelling books for students to read (see Book Love Foundation for classroom grant information).  Also see Nancie Atwell’s The Reading Zone on how to set up a classroom library.
  • Know your students as readers and as people–and you accomplish that by conferring with students every day about their reading.  Joan relies on Miscue Analysis to deeply know her students as readers; Pattie is acquiring “reading” ears to listen for patterns within students’ reading.  One thing we don’t rely on is a bunch of quizzes to see if our students “got it.”  Side-by-side work with our students is powerful; look to future posts on how we do this work and how it moves students from non-readers into vibrant readers.
  • Conduct Book Talks everyday.  Kittle recommends two brief book talks–one fiction, one non-fiction that last about two minutes each with a short read-aloud segment.  We’ll share our Book Talk ideas in the coming weeks–we like Kittle’s idea here, but we think students need to present the Book Talks.
  • Celebrate reader growth and confidence for all readers.  Amen!  This is actually hard not to do, once you confer with students and get to know them as readers and as thinkers.  What’s better is that in this work, you position students to note and celebrate their own growth.
  • Pause to self-reflect on students’ reading lives.  Kittle recommends Ideal Bookshelf to help students illustrate the 10 books that represent them.  In addition, students reflect in writing what their book choices mean.  Students like seeing what celebrities recommend on their bookshelves (James Franco, Malcolm Gladwell, and Tony Hawk have interesting book choices to check out).


  • Become a community of readers, which means teachers need to read, too.  Kittle estimates that 20% of public school teachers are avid readers but that 50% limit their reading to one book a year while a whopping 30% choose not to read at all.  This is sobering–our students’ non-reading reflects adult non-reading (see Do Teachers Read?).  Also, see our post, You are not a Finished Project, from the fall about creating professional reading groups for teachers.  If you’re an Oregon teacher, see Oregon Reading Association’s Teachers as Readers Groups.
  • Share your love of reading through all of the moves above.  Repeat daily.

Adding to Kittle’s list of changing the trajectory of non-readers into readers, we believe it’s vital to:

  • Remember the importance of a caring teacher.  We must shape our lessons in a way to invite our students to follow and learn.
  • Know that you may be alone and the only adult who will reach out to students to ensure they are prepared for their future endeavors. Ncholas Kristoff writes about the importance of teachers in Worth of a Good Teacher; his words humble and motivate us to do our best for our students.

Terea Latchford’s article Reading Level at 15 Determines Your Future Salary demonstrates the need for teachers to become energized about the teaching of reading for the benefit of the students.  When we realize that the future of our students is at stake, we must accept the responsibility to make changes in our classrooms.  And through our efforts, our students will not only benefit, but as teachers we will feel the reward for a job done well.

Happy Reading!


About Teaching it Forward

We are high school language arts teachers in Oregon.
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2 Responses to Changing the Trajectory of Non-Readers

  1. susan97013 says:

    Hey – I’m checking out Malcolm’s bookshelf!

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