The Difficult Job of Motivating Secondary Students to Read

By the time most learners have reached middle school, they can read, but the big question becomes, will they choose to read? There is even a term for those who don't: aliteracy. According to Merriam-Webster, aliteracy means being able to read but uninterested in doing so. Often, with the added pressure of continued high-stakes tests, the focus of reading in school is on decoding, summarizing, finding vocabulary words, and more, using required books. Knowing how to do these things is important but sometimes these activities don't leave room for taking pleasure in the act of reading. Although we, as school librarians, don't have the power to change testing mandates, we do have the power to bring back the joy of reading. I mean, how many of us went to library school saying, "I hope I can spend the day solving computer problems or proctoring exams." We went because we love reading and want to share its power.

You might be wondering how to do that in this day and age. Let me share some tips from my experience awakening the readers within my students.

Passion for Books & Individualized Attention

I love books and always made sure my students knew that. I would stop what I was doing to help a student find a book. I was always ready to talk about the book a student was returning. In this way, I validated the importance of reading, especially the importance of that particular student's reading. I also talked to teachers about sending students to the library individually so that they were not constrained by peer pressure, which was vital for those students who found reading challenging.

Easy-to-Find & Enticing Books

Just in case I could not meet with each student (I had 1,700!), I also created a library space that was conducive to student self-selection. I generified the fiction section, making it easier for students to browse in the genre they enjoyed reading. I had as many books face out and on display as I had the space, which helped visual learners find an interesting book, and I had "book talking" sticks. These sticks had speech bubbles that peeked out of the top of the book, with text like: suspenseful, surprise ending, NO romance, newest in this series, etc. None of these ideas are original, but they are free, and they work!

Fast & Fun Book Encounters

My favorite activity when working with a class on a literacy project was "Speed Dating with Books." Most of you know it, I'm sure (but for those who want a refresher, check out my lesson plan describing the process). Sometimes, if the class was working with a particular subject, the tables had topics or themes. Other times, I was able to mix and match a great variety of books that the students may not have taken the time to browse on their own.

I required the students to write down (old fashioned but useful!) the titles of the books they found potentially worth reading, and I collected and kept the list. Here is the best part: students came back to look at their lists. Oftentimes, the returning student was a challenged reader, and this gave them a chance to talk through the books they liked or for me to help them find a similar book that would meet with reader success. Yes, my students all had iPads, but the written list gave them a reason to ask for help, which is difficult for some.

Sustained, Silent Reading

Finally, I encouraged my English teachers to change their classroom methods and have a ten-minute free choice sustained silent reading time each day. This was wonderful! Every student was required to have a book, but it could be whatever they wanted. Some were actually reading the classics, others jumped into horror, and several grabbed graphic novels. Once students got into this reading habit, they were in and out of the library frequently, choosing new books. The conversations in the fiction section became more relevant as students from various classes met at genre sections and shared favorites. Aha! We had created—or awakened—readers!

I knew my readers were motivated when they would come in to tell me which books to order next. My library had truly become student centered with the learners comfortable and confident enough suggest what they wanted to make it an even better space.

About the Editor

Liz Deskins, MA, currently serves as an instructor in the School of Information at Kent State University and has been a teacher-librarian for more than 25 years. She earned her master's degree from the Ohio State University and is coauthor of the books LGBTQAI+ Books for Children and Teens: Providing a Window for All (ALA Editions, 2018) and Linking Picture Book Biographies to National Content Standards: 200+ Lives to Explore (Libraries Unlimited, 2015). She has served in numerous leadership roles within both the Ohio Educational Library Media Association and the American Association of School Librarians.

MLA Citation Deskins, Liz. "The Difficult Job of Motivating Secondary Students to Read." School Library Connection, December 2018,

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Entry ID: 2183379

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