How to Awaken a Dormant Reader

This post first appeared on the Scholastic Book Fairs Reader Leader blog.

On the first day I set the incline on our treadmill at 0.0. After twenty years as a retired runner I decided to train for a local half-marathon with my daughter. We have two months. She was reluctant to start. I asked my husband to create a gradual workout plan that could get us to the finish line. Rest days included.

I set the speed at 5.0. The first minute didn’t bother me at all. Then the unglamorous loping, sweating, and internal whining began. I can’t do this kept time in my head along with Taylor’s beat in my earbuds. The finish line was too far ahead to see. But rather than keep you here beside me on the treadmill, I want to use my experience returning from dormancy as a runner to think about readers. It’s challenging to return to anything difficult, even when we have dim memories of pleasure. I remember my race bibs, crossing finish lines, early morning runs that felt light, almost effortless. The getting there is harder than I remember, though.

It is worth considering as we look at a nation where reading enjoyment declines sharply after age 8, according to the Scholastic Kids and Family Reading Report, fifth edition. Choice is a predictor of engagement, yet only 17% of kids aged 6-17 read a book of their choice independently every day or almost every day in school. I am sure I will meet dormant readers this year, and even though my running metaphor may not be a perfect match, it has reminded me of a few important things.

Tools and equipment matter. I need a playlist because I set my pace to the beat. Bruce Springsteen’s “No Surrender” made the list. I am not giving up, I tell myself. No retreat, baby, no surrender. I run early in the morning when energy is high. The right conditions keep me going. Our students need time in class to read every day and a teacher to encourage, to nudge, and to help navigate the tricky parts.

I went to purchase running shoes and was overwhelmed by choices. The store clerks couldn’t help me. When students stand before my towering bookshelves, they need help choosing. I need to know them, their goals, and my stock well enough to guide them.

Goals matter. That first day back I hit 2.0 miles. I texted it to my daughter in Boston and she replied, ‘Ran 3.12…so basically a 5k… on my way maybe.’ Game on, sister. But this nudge from her only works because it is a little bit farther ahead of where I am.

I sit beside high school readers in my classroom and nudge, “You read for ten minutes last night? Give me a high five! Can you sit tonight for 15?” But if I’m impatient with growth: “You were supposed to read for 30 minutes!” the gap from where they are to where I want them to be can feel too far. The ego is fragile. Fear—a prediction of failure—zaps my will to try. I train myself to go just a little farther than last time and call it a victory. That’s how big struggles are always overcome: one day at a time, one mile, one paragraph of writing. I set 2.5 miles as the goal and start again the next day.

Obstacles can defeat us; we need encouragement to overcome them. On day four of our training plan I ran into the heater in the laundry room and broke my toe. My husband told me to take a rest day. And another. He said, “Don’t give up. Change your plan. You’ve got plenty of time.” He suggested I use the elliptical to keep racking up miles while keeping weight off my bruised and swollen foot.

Some students start books that are complicated and confusing. They lose focus. They lose will. They abandon the book and start another. Getting past the hard part—the start of a book where characters, setting, and the voice of the narrator are unfamiliar—is a challenge for an unsure reader. This might take a student many tries to overcome. We can’t set arbitrary cut offs like ‘read the first 100 pages before you give up’ because engagement is everything in reading. Reach for irresistible stories, ones that keep students turning pages late into the night. If a book becomes confusing teach the student strategies to understand, but also allow them to start over. We can and must build confidence to overcome obstacles.

Goals are private. I’m afraid to tell anyone what I’m doing. I’m still expecting to fail. I’m even afraid to practice in public; I’ve run only in our basement so far.

My students set reading goals in September, but only in their notebooks. No one is competing against each other—no star charts or God forbid, posted class Lexile scores. We can’t standardize reading growth. My husband could run five miles tonight—and much faster than me—and likely be at 10 miles in a few weeks. If you force me to measure my progress against his, it will never feel good to me. Why bother? I can’t keep up. He’s a runner; I’m not. Haven’t we all heard this? They’re readers—not me.

And here’s where my metaphor stops working: I can choose not to run. I can substitute Pilates and maintain a reasonable fitness level. But we can’t let kids not read. It’s oxygen for their future. We had better play this carefully—this coaxing of non-readers back to reading. If the books we give them are uninteresting and unrelenting in difficulty they will return to dormancy and lose another year of growth. We talk about summer reading loss, but somehow continue practices that lose kids year after year of relentless struggle and no joy. Would you keep going?

We may not all run marathons, but to participate in our democracy we must all be readers. Be patient. Let students set the pace for their independent reading and share your passion for books. It’s contagious. Regular practice will help them navigate a hard, tangled text. In creating readers there is no retreat, no surrender; there is only a focus on the finish line—a reading life that lasts.