Engaging Resistant, Adolescent Male Readers: Four Ideas That Matter Most

I’ve been a literacy specialist for many years. And yet when it came to engaging my own son as a reader, especially an adolescent reader, I was an epic failure. It wasn’t until last year in the presence of one very new and yet very smart high school English teacher, was he engaged as a reader. I have reflected on this phenomenon a number of hours. What made her successful, when I wasn’t? What did she do that made the difference? Zion is like many adolescent males in our classrooms. He didn’t struggle to read. On the contrary, he was in an honors class. Zion didn’t want to read. After much research and thinking about this remarkable young teacher, Miss Gomes, here’s four ideas I’ve come to conclude that make the difference.

1. Text Matters: In Wilhelm and Smith’s study, “Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys”   they found that when boys were given meaningful choices and a way to exert their individuality, it directly impacted their level of engagement. We have to know our students and know text in order to put the right books into the hands of readers that will make them want to read. To go even further, readers have to have what I call a “reader’s identity,” they have to know what it is that they like to read! For my son, it was biography. He loves books, that in his words, “the character has really bad things happen and somehow they survive.” Lucky enough for Zion, Miss Gomes was able to help him figure this out and put the right book in his hands. Text matters.


2.Talking About Text Matters: Learning is relational. We’ve all experienced finishing a book and enjoying it so much that we want someone else to read it so that we can talk about it. Talking about learning makes learning more engaging and richer than learning alone. Too many times, in the name of rigor, we expect adolescent readers to read in isolation. For some reason there’s a myth that if we allow students to talk about their reading and thinking with others, this is somehow cheating. When in fact, what we are really doing is denying students the opportunity to build an important twenty-first century skill: seeking the opinions and thoughts of others. The Common Core State Standards for Listening and Speaking specifically call this skill out in Standard One: Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively. Talking matters.

3. Feedback Matters: A few years ago I had the pleasure of supporting Amy Matt, a High School English teacher in Sacramento, who was implementing Independent Reading in her classroom.  She had been a part of a summer institute I lead in her district in which we used Penny Kittle’s book, Book Love  as a guide for our work. I specifically remember one of my visits to Amy’s class that year. She was especially excited about one boy in her class that had taken off as a reader. She shared that he had been in her class the previous year and not read a single book. He admitted to using online notes to pass the tests, listening to what others said to fake class discussion, writing essays with little to no effort, or just not writing the essay at all. This year  was completely different, he was an engaged and eager reader. He sat down with me to share his reader’s notebook and the book he had just finished, Silver Linings Playbook  by Matthew Quick. He showed me all the entries in his reader’s notebook for the year, including what he was most proud of, his reader’s log where he recorded the titles of all the books he had read and the page numbers. (Amy had students tracking their volume, reflecting on their reading and setting goals.) After our conference, I took off my glasses, sat back and looked at this boy. “Be straight with me, what turned you into a reader this year?” I asked. He smiled like I should already know the obvious answer. “Miss Matt,” he said. He went on to show me, as if offering much needed proof, that when he wrote in his notebook, Amy read his entries and responded with comments that were real. She answered his entries authentically from the place of a fellow reader, not a teacher casting judgement or marking a grade. She encouraged him, she asked real questions, she showed surprise, she agreed, she cared. That was the bottom line, what he wanted me to know that made the difference, what turned him into a reader. She cared. Feedback matters.


Amy Matt, High School English Teacher in Sacramento CA

4. The Task Matters: Students want to do what they want to do. That may sound silly, but it’s true and powerful. Where else in the world do we finish a book and write an essay in which we analyze it to death, besides in a high school English class? Ok, a college English class. While I’m not proposing that we throw out having students write analytical essays, that would be ridiculous, I am proposing that we widen the scope of our traditional tasks, i.e. assignments. What if we also included a way for students to have choice in the task? Could some of the assignments include something other than an essay? Students would be more likely to be engaged if the task felt more authentic and that it mattered. Consider asking students to write a book review for an actual literary magazine or online website such as GoodReads. Consider giving students the choice to blog about their reading, or lead a book club, or give a book talk in another classroom, or debate a central message with another group that’s read the same book or another book with a similar topic or theme. When students feel like the task matters and they have choice they are much more likely to be engaged. Task matters.

What have you found to be effective in engaging resistant adolescent male readers? I’d love to know your ideas and share them with others. Leave me a comment on the blog.