Engaging your reluctant readers

Written by: Angela Fuggle | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Engaging reluctant and struggling readers is a clear challenge for every school. Ahead of a workshop focused on this issue, Angela Fuggle from the literacy charity Beanstalk offers some practical tips

Research findings have suggested that around 25 per cent of children leave primary school unable to read at the expected standard for their age. This means that you have the tricky task of identifying the students in your class who cannot read at the same level as the rest of their peers.

Managing this can be very difficult and time-consuming, yet the benefits of trying to encouraging children to have good reading skills are huge.

Here are some quick tips and strategies on how you can encourage reluctant or struggling readers to be enthused by reading and embrace reading despite the transition between year 6 and years 7/8.

It is important to remember at this stage that you want to ensure that the support you offer a child who struggles with reading is child-centred and allows them to make the choices.

First, choosing a book with the child is very important. Ensure the book that you are choosing reflects their interests. At this stage, children have been reading for enough time to know what they do and don’t enjoy. Spending time getting to know the child and their likes and interests will help.

Point out the title, pictures on the front cover, maybe take a look at the first few pages to see if it’s something they might be interested in reading. Don’t rule-out using non-fiction texts such as biographies, instruction manuals or even maps or magazine articles. While reading with a child it is important to give them space yet support them when necessary. We teach our volunteers to “Pause, Prompt, Praise”. When a reader is struggling with a word, pause for five seconds before trying to jump in and help them.

This is important as if you jump in too quickly they won’t have chance to figure the word out, jump in too late and they will have lost confidence or interest in attempting the word.

Try prompting before you tell them the word. Try sounding out the first letter or the first half of a word, then try to give them a clue what the word is or how it sounds. If this doesn’t work, go back and read the sentence to them while they focus on that word and see if it slots in.

Remember that the young person you are working with won’t have much confidence when it comes to reading, so ensure that you praise them.
It is best to give specific praise, such as “you’re really good at breaking down a word into their syllables and then building it up again” or “it’s great how you are using the pictures as a guide to figure out what the words are saying”.

It is worth remembering that if a child is struggling with more than a 10th of the words then the book is too hard for them and there is little point in continuing with that book.

At this stage in their education four elements need to be firmly embedded in order to understand a piece of text: phonic knowledge, knowledge of context, grammatical knowledge, and word recognition/graphic knowledge.

There are many exercises you can carry out to gauge whether the child you’re supporting has these skills, but let’s briefly focus on grammatical knowledge.

One short exercise that will demonstrate their knowledge of grammar is to take a passage of writing and delete certain words to gauge whether they understand syntax, grammar and, to an extent, punctuation. We have several passages we use in training sessions and below is a short excerpt from a passage we use:

“The ___ that my eldest ___ started at the ___ school was one of the ___ days of my ___”

Having a general conversation around this passage with a child will demonstrate their knowledge and can be a fun way of assessing them without them being aware. Discuss the different options of words that could be inserted. This might be a suitable time to gauge the child’s vocabulary and even teach them some new words.

Poetry, particularly limericks, are another great tool for building understanding or starting a conversation around the use of language or structure. For instance, have a conversation around rhyming couplets, what other words could they have used to rhyme and even encourage the child to create their own limerick.

Finally, there is good evidence that children learn best when they are sharing “joint attention” with the person they are communicating with and that children find it easier to learn words if adults pay attention to the object or activity they are already interest in.

For this reason, it is important to stay focused throughout the whole of the time you are reading with them. If reading is beginning to be too difficult and you can tell their focus is waning, then engage them in a game that somehow involves words and where you are both focused on the activity, for instance, Hangman or a game of Top Trumps.

With Top Trumps you can ask them questions about the skills or facts that they have on their cards and encourage them to ask you questions. As long as words are involved then you can be quite creative. 

  • Angela Fuggle is head of programme development and training at the literacy charity Beanstalk, a national children’s reading charity that has been supporting struggling and reluctant readers for more than 40 years. Visit www.beanstalkcharity.org.uk

Pupil Premium Workshop

Beanstalk will be going into more detail about closing the vocabulary gap in years 7 and 8 at SecEd’s 10th National Pupil Premium Conference on Friday, September 28. The workshop will cover more practical classroom strategies to help close the vocabulary gap, discuss in detail the six emergent literacy skills and tangible exercises that support these six skills. Visit www.pupilpremiumconference.com


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