9 Tricks to Help Students FINISH That Book

This battle of wills is perhaps the most epic, universal, and notorious problem that English teachers face, even more than grading struggles: getting students to ACTUALLY read that book, short story, article, or poem.

Whether it’s an assigned text or choice reading, students have a variety of obstacles that make reading at home difficult. The struggle ranges from the innocent (forgetting to read) to the sympathetic (struggling to read) to the frustrating (too busy to read) to the malicious (choosing not to read, with no excuse). With an ever-increasing number of websites that make cheating easier, how can a teacher increase reading skills (and preferably a love of reading) if the student just won’t do it?

Since students’ reasons for not reading vary, we teachers can’t only keep students accountable through assessment (although that’s important); we have to hack their motivation and ruffle their curiosity. Teaming up with me to tackle this question is fellow ELA teacher Kristy from 2 Peas and a Dog.

1. Start reading in class.
Sara: I have always found that if we start reading in class (either read-aloud or independently), they're more likely to go home and continue doing it. If we have built momentum, gotten the students hooked on the storyline, and talked through any immediate obstacles, then students are prepared to go it alone. For example, I personally hate the first chapter of To Kill A Mockingbird (even though I love the book overall), and I can't imagine teaching that novel without me doing an interrupted read-aloud to get students PAST that brutal opening faster.

Kristy: When we read whole class novels, I do almost all of the reading during class time. Then when I need the students to complete some reading at home, they are more inclined because I do not assign it nightly.

2. Keep parents in the loop.
Kristy: I remind parents through online portals and during in person meetings that it is a requirement of my English program for students to read at least 20 minutes nightly. Many parents thank me for this requirement as it gives them a reason to enforce reading at home.

Sara: In the past, I have sometimes sent a mass email to parents letting them know what book we are reading, when it has to be done by, and any other relevant information (such as project info or why we are reading this novel). Some parents appreciate being kept in the loop and will help remind their child to read at home.

3. Help students learn pacing skills.
Sara: Some students aren't reading because they truly don't know how to fit it into their lives (and other homework). I like to teach them that even a little reading every day is better than none; showing them the cumulative payoff of reading is easier with these pacing bookmarks. Students calculate a page goal per day and make a calendar to try to stick to their page goals.

Kristy: I explicitly teach my students how to select novels that are the right fit for them. This starts the first week of school. We set goals together and use sticky notes to mark places in their novels and write dates on each sticky notes. These visual reminders help students see their weekly reading goals. Not all students need a visual reminder; some students also do well with informal reading check ins. I regularly walk around my classroom during independent reading time and ask students questions about their reading materials. I also greet my students at the door almost every day - they have to show me their novel as they enter. This quick visual scan allows me to track their reading.

Sara: You might also like to read Kristy's blog post about Why Classroom Libraries are Essential and my post with Tips for Independent Reading Programs.

4. Ask questions that internet summaries can't answer.
Sara: Pick the questions on your quizzes or checkpoints very carefully. It's fine to ask about summary, theme, symbolism, or characters, but just know that this information could be in an online summary somewhere. In addition to questions like “Which of these events did NOT happen?”, throw in a few questions that ask for opinions, author’s writing style, predicting what's next, and inference.

Kristy: I use daily warm ups to check for comprehension when reading whole class novels. This only counts for a very small portion of a student’s overall grade for that unit. I plan assignments where students must demonstrate deep critical thinking, and not just repeat general comprehension information. During the assignment creation process, I try to create choice boards so students have several options to demonstrate their learning, but must complete one per column. This helps me differentiate, but also assess curriculum.

Sara: In addition, Kristy has great genre-specific book reports that students can't possibly fake!

5. Ask for quotes.
Sara: It's hard for students to fake that they read the chapter when they have to quickly flip through the text to find a quote or moment you're asking for. Ask students to show (or paraphrase) text evidence to back up their answer.

Kristy: It is important to explicitly teach students about finding and use quotations from the novel. I start this process using the gradual release model - lots of teacher directed, then slowly moving towards student directed and independent learning. Picture books, song lyrics and short stories are a great place to start when teaching students to analyze song lyrics.

6. Model enthusiasm for the text, not just obligation and accountability.
Kristy: Students come to me frequently and ask for book recommendations from the classroom library. I start by asking them what genres they like and pull engaging books from those areas. Then before I leave the stack of books with a student to look through, I pull my top three novels and explain why I think those would be a great fit.

Sara: If you don't like the text or aren't passionate about the unit, students will pick up on it, and they won't want to read it, either. If you hype up the book, act like you can't WAIT for them to read what happens next, drool over beautiful sentences, defend its modern-day relevance, and put some excitement into it, then comparatively more students will give it a try.

7. Make social incentives.
Sara: I never advocate for shaming students, BUT if there is a peer or social reason to read, that motivates some students. For example, if there's a group project and people are relying on a student to do his or her part, that helps. Or, if I tell students that they are allowed to publicly quiz each other on a chapter, then suddenly no one wants to be unprepared.

Kristy: Students love to read what other students have recommended. Build time into your classes just a few minutes for students to share their likes and dislikes. Eventually it will become an organic process not needing teacher involvement.

8. Use assessments that force reading.
Kristy: When I assess reading, students know they cannot Google the answers and that they MUST have completed their reading. Creative assignments in lieu of essays can be a great way to ensure students have completed their reading. It is quite evident to the teacher and to a student’s peers who has read the novel when presenting creating assignments.

Sara: Even if the student didn't come to class prepared, can your activity or assessment MAKE them get caught up? Can you get students to act out a chapter, look for evidence of a claim, or illustrate a paragraph?

9. Ask a question they WANT to answer.
Sara: I love using reverse psychology or a hook to frame their thinking. For example, for the short story “The Most Dangerous Game”, I tell students that I think Suzanne Collins copied this short story when creating The Hunger Games. That makes students want to read it to compare. (No, I don't ACTUALLY think Ms. Collins would plagiarize, but that's not the point!)

Kristy: When we read the first chapter of The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton - students want to give up on the book due to the names of the characters, but as soon as Ponyboy gets jumped outside of the movie theatre they want to know more. As the students become more invested in the novel, they answer reading questions and start to speculate about the plot of the novel.

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