Engaging Struggling and Non-Readers in the High School Setting

Starting my career teaching English at an alternative high school, my classes were stuffed with students who had given up on reading. Some students were 2-3 grade levels behind their peers. Others were perfectly literate, but had no interest in reading. As a green teacher, these students seemed impossible to educate. 

Fortunately, I had a good mentor teacher, and after a few years in the classroom, I learned many strategies to engage struggling and non-readers. In this article we’ll explore three valuable techniques rookie teachers can use no matter the subject(s) they teach. So if you’re ready, let’s learn how to turn your students into readers!

Read Aloud to Your Class

When you think of a teacher reading aloud to his or her class, you might imagine an elementary school classroom. However, even in the high school setting, teachers reading aloud can engage struggling and non-readers, along with hooking the rest of the class for the day’s lesson.

Through reading the story/passage/etc. to the class, you have the opportunity to convince your students that they should continue reading on their own. To have the greatest effect, use some showmanship when you read. Your students might have a laugh at your expense if you read some dialogue in an accent or act out the scene, but the humor may be just enough to convince the non-readers in your class.

For struggling readers, reading aloud has a different, but just as important, benefit. If your class has many struggling readers, read slowly so that students can learn the pronunciations/meaning of unfamiliar words. In addition, pause regularly to ask students basic comprehension questions. 

Tie in Reading to Other Media

As part of my English lessons I regularly used film and television clips to introduce literary concepts and stories. For example, during my unit on American drama, I taught Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Instead of simply assigning the play, I turned the unit into an investigation into censorship in film. I had the class view snippets from the 1958 film before challenging the class to predict how the narrative had been censored. After discussions we would act out the original scenes from the play. By turning a straightforward reading assignment into a mystery, I was able to hook students’ interest. Struggling readers, as well, were less likely to give in to frustration because of their curiosity. 

Incorporate ‘Real Life’ Reading Materials into your Lessons

Many students avoid reading for school by posing a simple question: “What does this have to do with real life?” It’s true; The Scarlet Letter has nothing to do with real life. To engage these students, use a variety of ‘real life’ documents in your classrooms.

  • Math: The terms and conditions for a credit card. Can be used to help teach compound interest (and credit card responsibility).
  • Science (or Health): Food labels and nutritional information.
  • English: Job applications. Students can improve their reading and writing skills by tackling the classic ‘What makes you qualified to become a BLANK?’ question.
  • Social Studies: Local news stories that focus on issues relevant to your students.

Choosing the right documents will depend on your particular student body. Once you get to know your students, you will likely come up with many more options than those on the above list.  

Final Thoughts

No matter the cause, students who cannot (or do not) read are at a serious disadvantage. When helping these students improve their literacy or ‘see the light’ about the importance of reading, focus on the positive aspects of reading rather any negative consequences that may stem from their status as nonreaders. Finally, you may not turn every student into an aspiring bookworm, but the students you do reach will have their lives changed for the better.

Thomas Broderick taught English and social studies for four years at an alternative high school in Middle Tennessee. Now a freelance writer and consultant in the education field, he is happy to share his experience and wisdom with the next generation of teachers. You can learn more about Thomas on his website.