Professional Learning

Engaging Struggling Readers: Helping Students Understand Why They Should Read

April 2, 2006

The George Lucas Educational Foundation recently received an email from a classroom teacher. I'm posting it below, followed by my response:

"I love your site and have been particularly interested in learning how to implement project-based learning. As a special-needs elementary teacher, I am looking for project-based ways to teach my kids to read. I need projects that incorporate the visual, kinesthetic, auditory, and tactile modalities so that all my kids can learn. The curriculum I teach now is Project Read, which is excellent, but teacher directed. Because I serve a large number of students at many levels, this does not work very well. Also, because I'm teaching struggling upper elementary kids, they find the curriculum insulting because it is too babyish. I would love it if you could address this very important issue." -- Resource-Room Teacher, grades 3-5, Massachusetts

No matter where I go, I hear issues like you describe in classrooms and resource rooms. And these situations make me think about how much we focus on teaching kids "how to read" when we really ought to be focusing on helping kids grab hold of "why to read." My experience has been that once the latter is achieved, the former will come along as a freebie. Project-based learning (PBL) is the expert at getting the why-to-read going. Here are a couple thoughts to get you started:

I like this book called Reading Don't Fix No Chevys. Jeff Wilhelm, one of the authors, was a Mainer for awhile, and I always enjoyed his clear focus on providing purpose for learning. Though the central idea is perhaps not specific to your grade level, it is that unless content is meaningful, adolescent boys tend not to see the "why" for reading. I see project-based learning as the way to break the back of this issue -- if you take on a project that has a real purpose, a sense of mission will develop and then the reading has to happen, because the project is just so darn important.

Second, if you haven't read Sometimes a Shining Moment, by Elliott Wigginton -- the story of how the student-produced Foxfire literary series came to be -- you ought to. Although Wigginton had a terrible fall from grace, the story of how Foxfire came to be is inspirational.

So, I guess I would suggest that rather than looking around for the "right" way to do it, I would begin by asking yourself and the kids, "What is worth learning about in order to be more empowered?" and then set about doing it. The big question is, "What do we want to be able to do?"

I imagine you and the kids saying, "Hey, we know this reading thing is tough, but what are the choices? If we don't read this, we won't be able to [insert real need here], and we all know that we have to get that done!"

No, it won't be a magic bullet, but doesn't current research say that effort trumps native ability?

Let me know how it goes.

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  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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