Reluctant Teenage Readers

I tweeted a while back how frustrating it was many of a class of fourteen year olds seemed incapable of reading for fifteen minutes without distraction. I could understand it if I had handed out copies of The Origin of Species, but they choose the reading material. They can bring in their own books or borrow them from the school library (or my own selection), or they can bring magazines.

Admittedly, I am probably also a long way from ‘normal’ when it comes to reading. It’s an unusually busy week when I don’t read four or five books, usually a mixture of fiction and fact. I have an upstairs book, a downstairs book, one in the car and several on my Android. (Currently You Can’t Read This Book by Nick Cohen, The Perfect Ofsted English Lesson by David Didau aka @LearningSpy, Better Learning Through Structured Teaching by Fisher and Frey and Where The Bodies Are Buried by Chris Brookmyre, if you’re interested.) I would rather read than sleep and, in fact, often do. So it was always going to be hard to understand their extreme reluctance.

So I did some research.

An old item in the Telegraph discussed a link between kids reading at 16 and a higher chance of having a professional-grade job in later life. Sadly this probably says more about the kids who voluntarily read a lot as teenagers, than ways to encourage readers at this age. The comments below this article in the Guardian are quite depressing, and there’s really not much in the way of solutions. A more recent article on their professional network is more constructive, but still focuses on the books that could be offered.

LoveReading4kids is an online bookstore with a section for reluctant readers, but it’s more about books than strategies. Their downloadable leaflet is more aimed at parents than teachers. I had a look at BookTrust, but their research page has more about evaluation of their programmes than anything else.

The research page at the Literacy Trust was much more useful, although most of the ideas they have for engaging with reluctant readers need a whole-school approach. Not much I can do alone for Year 9 students in one form time a week! The most recent survey results, however, were interesting. I’d recommend having a look yourself if you’re interested, but I was shocked by how little the young people surveyed read for pleasure.

55% of KS4 students (58% of boys) read once a week or less. A third of KS4 students (40% of boys) agreed with the statement “I only read when I have to.” This covered all aspects of reading, including magazines and online, not just books. And it’s despite around three quarters agreeing that “the more I read, the better I get,” with roughly the same response across all ages.

Of course, difficulty in reading is identified as a major factor putting young people off reading. There are many approaches to this, none really applicable in form time. In my situation, I don’t think it’s a significant factor as they have a free choice of material and our library is well-stocked with a range of options. Another problem is that even those who do happily read seem content to stick with familiar and non-challenging books, long after their skill level increases, perhaps increasing boredom.

I suspect part of the issue is that they are using this area to assert their independence and provoke confrontation. The social cachet from defying the teacher – even passively, by repeatedly reading the blurb on the back instead of the book itself – is worth the few minutes of boredom.

So what can I do? It does feel like a broader approach is called for than the options available to me in form time. The research has certainly highlighted the problem, and in some ways reassured me that it’s not a ‘local’ issue. But it doesn’t solve it. Tried so far:

  • Rewards/sanctions for those who repeatedly remember/forget.
  • Suggesting 200word mini-essays “Why I would rather be bored than read.”
  • Keeping a selection of my books to hand.
  • Sending students to the library, where we have a range of choices including graphic novels.
  • Reminding them of magazines that they could use.
  • Passing on recommendations from other students of good books.

I’ll pass on my comments to the Head of Year – it’s a mandated form activity – but suspect I will be told to persevere for at least the remainder of the year. Any other suggestions?

6 thoughts on “Reluctant Teenage Readers”

  1. Be relentlessly enthusiastic about your favourite reads – you say you read a lot as if you just tick books off a list, so why not go back to an all-time favourite that you absolutely love and simply talk to them about the book and why you love it! Really show your enthusiasm. How many times do we, as adults, model real enthusiasm for reading? We simply don’t very often, but it’s incredibly hard to resist when someone does. No cynicism, no sarcasm – just let them hear and respond to you sharing your feelings. If, ok when, they challenge you just accept what they are saying, but without agreeing necessarily. Empathise too. We weren’t all born as avid readers, and often even the most voracious readers have periods of their lives when they have read less frequently and intensely for whatever reason. Show them they are missing something rather than telling them (or telling them off!). Another idea: Start a squash and biscuits half hour after-school book club – chat and recommend books to each other. Even if you end up chatting about one of those scatalogically entitled tomes that seem to be doing the rounds these days, at least you’ll be getting to know your group and talking about books!

  2. Can they read magazines or websites? Give them the latest gaming news from or films from Empire magazine? Get them to read newspaper columns like Charlie Brooker or Jeremy Clarkson? In my experience even the best stocked libraries don’t have many magazines, which might be a way in. Sports biographies or even instructions on how to improve a particular thing they’re interested in? I’m assuming they don’t have to read fiction.
    You could also introduce some discussion about their reading material, if that might force them to read something so they at least have something to say when called on, but if it’s teacher rebellion that might not work.

  3. I used to encounter the same problem when teaching. I got my year 9 form group (boys and girls) to do presentations on their current or favourite reading book; we did one presentation per week. Some took it really seriously and their presentations were fantastic; I think a lot of the students felt more comfortable presenting in front of their form group than necessarily in front of their subject class. If they had been in Year 10, I could have used their presentation for a speaking and listening assessment, which would have acted as an extra incentive.

    I wonder whether the gamification trend could help get reluctant teenage readers into reading. Sites like might increase their engagement. It’s pitched at an US audience though – I’m on the look out for ones more suitable for the UK.

  4. Thanks for this. I must find more time to read as it’s so good to ‘get away’ from the daily grind. It’s worth looking into what primary schools are already doing which secondary colleagues could build on or support colleagues in different phases.

  5. Why not have a short chat at the beginning of each lesson when people can talk about the authors/books they’re currently reading or have discovered and why. Children are told so much what they ought to read or ought to enjoy that I think they need to rediscover that they should read books because they’re fun and to their own personal taste.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s