Learning to sail: Engaging reluctant readers - Renaissance Australia
From text to technology…
August 20, 2018
How to: Accelerate Progress with Guided Reading
August 20, 2018

Learning to sail: Engaging reluctant readers

By: Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer, Renaissance USA

What was the last thing you read? Did you read for pleasure, to gain information, or to complete a task? Did you read to calm yourself, escape the day, or get energised? For many, the answers are as swift as they are varied. We read great works, blog posts, updates, expressions, Google Doodles, equations, music, blueprints, palms, stars, non-verbal signals, verbal cues, street signs, between the lines, and among the tea leaves. We read as if reading were second nature. It is, but that doesn’t mean that it is easy to do, or that we all learn to read in the same way.

The language and sensory centers in the brain, rather than the optic nerve, are far more involved in reading. Nothing in our evolution could have prepared us to absorb language through vision; yet, we read and read well (Dehaene, 2009). In fact, reading is probably the hardest thing we teach people to do in the education system (Whitman and Goldberg, 2008). It is no wonder that some learners develop resistance to reading instruction and remain reluctant to engage in the fundamental work of learning to read, which involves deliberate reading practice that builds vocabulary, comprehension skills, and reading stamina, and exposes readers to the joy found in the written word.


“In fact, reading is probably the hardest thing we teach people to do in the education system.” (Whitman and Goldberg, 2008)


A recent Google Doodle featured Louisa May Alcott’s birthday and a few of her favored quotes, such as “I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.” Perhaps we can acknowledge that a reluctance to read may be due to the “brain” storm that forms when struggling readers seek to absorb language through their eyes and construct meaning via the language and sensory centers. It is our job to “teach them to sail.”

In the annual What Kids Are Reading report, author Tedd Arnold shared his journey from reluctant to enthusiastic reader. As he writes, his accidental introduction to MAD Magazine in a quaint used bookstore became his “landmark moment” as a sixth-grade reader. Baby Boomers may remember MAD with disgust or pleasure, giggles or groans; however, Arnold saw it as subversive, challenging, and a personal choice in reading that would take him to places his parents and teachers might not. So do we advocate for MAD Magazine or other counter-culture, subversive texts to engage our reluctant readers? Not exactly. We do advocate for Guthrie and Davis’ (2003) framework for engaging reluctant readers. Students who are resistant or reluctant to read benefit from:


  • Explicit instruction
  • Texts that they find interesting
  • Some autonomy in choosing texts
  • An abundance of books and other materials to read
  • Authentic reading that focuses on the world around them
  • Real-world interaction with reading


Arnold’s story sheds light on four of these six pillars. He explicitly writes that reading MAD was his choice (autonomy). He was surrounded by an abundance of appropriately leveled texts, but his middle-school interest in a degree of subversion and MAD’s focus on current events (authenticity) led him to the magazine.

Reluctant readers engage more fully when they have some degree of autonomy to select texts they find interesting. Comprehension requires that the reader make connections between text and prior experiences. When a reluctant reader considers a topic fascinating, it is likely that his or her brain is steeped in prior experiences that drives the interest. Sail on.


“When a reluctant reader considers a topic fascinating, it is likely that his or her brain is steeped in prior experiences that drives the interest.”


And sail on he did. As Arnold continues his story, he writes of moving from MAD to more substantial works. He “tolerated the difficult reading,” so he could engage in these books. He absorbed language through his eyes and made sense of it through the language and sensory centers of his brain. He captured the “brain” storm that is reading, and he learned to sail.

Take a moment to recall your landmark moment in reading. Do you remember the book and the sense that you were, as Tedd Arnold would say, “a reader with a capital R”?


Dehaene, S. (2009). Reading in the brain. Viking Press.
Guthrie, J. & Davis, M. (2003). Motivating struggling reading in middle school through an engagement model of classroom practice. Retrieved from http://www.cori.umd.edu/research-publications/2003-guthrie-davis.pdf.
Whitman, A. & Goldberg, J. (2008). Ready to read? Neuroscience research sheds light on brain correlates of reading. The DANA Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.dana.org/News/Details.aspx?id=43468.