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14 October 2022
By Louise Agley, Lead Specialist Adviser (Secondary)

Five Ways to Engage Reluctant Readers in Academic Texts

Estimated Reading Time - 6 mins

The facts are stark: four out of five boys from disadvantaged backgrounds do not read on a daily basis. Only half of our young people say they enjoy reading [1]. One in eight disadvantaged students do not own a single book [2]. This despite the equally dramatic consequences of a low level of reading: life long lower wages, less access to healthcare, greater likelihood of arrest and imprisonment, and lower levels of self-reported happiness and wellbeing [3]. It is therefore arguably every teacher’s responsibility to encourage reading as often as they can. But how can we engage reluctant readers in the kind of ambitious academic texts that will enrich students’ understanding of the curriculum?

1. Strategic Retrieval of Prior Knowledge

We often read to introduce and explore new ideas. These are best retained and understood by students if they are connected in some way to knowledge that they already have. In models of memory this is often referred to as ‘schema’ – essentially, mental networks made up of connected ideas. By focusing retrieval activities on the knowledge students have that is linked to the new content they are about to read, teachers can support students to ‘connect’ new knowledge to what they already know, increasing its ‘stickiness’ [4]. For example, an English lesson that focuses on the introduction of Lady Macbeth might begin with a starter or ‘Do Now’ activity that explicitly recalls students’ prior knowledge of the position of wealthy women in Jacobean society from previous lessons, making students’ understanding of Shakespeare’s presentation of the character a deeper and richer one.

2. Pre-teaching Key Vocabulary

It is a commonly cited statistic that a reader needs to understand between 95-98% of words in a piece of writing in order to understand it [5]. Of course we can never pre-empt all of this – different students will understand different words - but we can carefully review the texts we use in our teaching, select the vocabulary that will have the greatest impact on students’ understanding, and pre-teach it. Those words, when encountered in the text, will not be entirely opaque to the students, and instead can become beacons of understanding, illuminating the rest of the text. There are many ways to pre-teach vocabulary such as the Frayer model (Alex Quigley’s great explanation of this method can be found here).

3. Using the Power of Prediction

Good readers automatically make predictions before they read and as they read [6]. How can we model this for our weaker readers? Predicting the contents of what you are about to read has the effect of stimulating curiosity. Studies show that this ‘cognitive curiosity’ (curiosity about the topic) is more successful at encouraging learning than ‘situational interest’ (general positive feelings) and we can harness this effect simply by, for example, displaying the title of a text and asking students to generate ideas about it before showing them the text as a whole [7]. Exploring titles, or images attached to text, and repeatedly referring back to both can also act as a form of self-monitoring, as students reflect back on what they thought the text might include, and what it has actually revealed. This effect can be amplified by teacher modelling: talking aloud about the predictions you make as an expert reader, demonstrating to students the connections that you are able to make and challenging them to do the same.

4. Writing Summaries

Similar to prediction strategies, summaries can act as a form of metacognition or self-regulation [8]. These can be whole text summaries or, where appropriate, summaries of a text broken down into chunks. Creating a frame around a text in which students can summarise each paragraph in one bullet point, for example, is an excellent way to see at a glance whether they have understood the content of each paragraph. More reflective learners can then be encouraged to consider – ‘what have I understood? What do I need to find out more about?’; less reflective learners can use these summaries as reminders or aide-memoires to support them when answering questions about the text or completing other linked tasks.

5. Graphic Organisers

Setting students the task of completing a graphic organiser following reading a complex text has a variety of benefits: they can help access the knowledge contained in the text; they make concrete the relationships between different parts of texts; and they create resources that can be used at a later date to revise this content – making use of the benefits of dual coding [9]. As a later retrieval task, a blank copy of the same graphic organiser with the same title can be given to students to assess how much of the knowledge they can retrieve. This has the added benefit of reducing the ‘fall back’ habit of re-reading and highlighting that has been proven to be a highly ineffective form of revision [10]. Ultimately graphic organisers give novice or unconfident readers a scaffold that replicates the activities of a confident and competent reader.

We often use comprehension questions to assess whether students have understood their reading. But understanding the question, locating the information and synthesising it into an answer written in full sentences, can be an overwhelming cognitive load, particularly for more reluctant readers. We can use graphic organisers as a middle step to organise thought between reading and expressing a fully formed response to a question.

The final important consideration when using graphic organisers to support reluctant readers is to ensure you have selected the right graphic for the right task – the graphic you choose should make explicit to the reader the organisation of the information in the text – whether it is a sequence, a comparison, cause and effect, and so on. Choosing the wrong graphic to record students’ understanding can even have a negative effect on understanding [11].


Ultimately these ideas are intended to be part of your ‘teacher toolkit’. They are adaptable to any complex text, on any topic, and can become even more powerful when part of a student’s routine when faced with academic writing. We all want students to be motivated to read challenging text – and using these tools to help them access these will help them succeed at the task.

Rather than teaching generic comprehension skills, successful scaffolding for reluctant readers includes explicitly linking new information to prior knowledge, pre-teaching key vocabulary to ‘unlock’ understanding, using metacognitive strategies such as prediction and summary, and making the implicit organisation of information explicit through the use of graphic organisers.

By giving our reluctant readers these tools to engage with academic text, we can increase their feelings of success and therefore their motivation to read the next time: a positive outcome in anyone's book.


About the Author

Louise Agley

Louise is part of The Education People's Secondary School Improvement Service, she is a Specialist Lead Adviser for Teaching and Learning, Curriculum and English. Louise has over 15 years’ experience working in a variety of school contexts in Kent and Medway. She has experience in subject and senior leadership, with a specialism in curriculum and assessment design.