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How to Help Your Students Become Readers

reading Oct 03, 2019

You'd think I was crazy to say those things every night to my kids. Right?! I'm not. This happens regularly in my house. Why? Because my kids are readers.

If reading can be so pleasurable, what is it about teaching reading that is so difficult? Some students seem to just soar and others walk or even limp along. I have taught every grade K-6, and I know from experience that reading truly is one of the hardest things to teach well.

So, what's the magic formula for developing readers? Love. Time. The right books at the right time. Laying a firm foundation of skills and strategies. Sharing books- having a conversation while reading and enjoying books together. Respecting differences- tastes and opinions.


As teachers, we wonder why some teachers' classes seem to soar while ours seem to walk. It's all about the teaching.

Learning to read is a gift that comes from highly skilled teachers teaching the right skills, at the right pace, at the right time for each student. I know, it sounds impossible when we think about the time and the number of students we have. Guess what? It's totally possible. And you can be that teacher. You really can.

You have to be willing to step off the cliff a little. Let go of the teacher's manual once in a while. Trust me. You can do this. There's not a perfect text or system. Whatever materials you have can work as a starting place. However, you're going to have to improvise a bit no matter what you use.


Part of the problem with helping kids become readers revolves around time and material. Having the time to read is essential. Additionally, having the right material to read is also essential. Classrooms filled with the best books and no time to read fail just as much as classrooms with all the time and nothing worth reading. As Nancie Atwell says, "A child sitting in a quiet room with a good book isn't a flashy or, more significantly, marketable teaching method. It just happens to be the only way anyone ever grew up to become a reader." More simply. The only way to become a reader is to read books we enjoy. Every day. 

Ok. What materials are essential? BOOKS, individual white boards, dry erase markers, erasers (clean, old rags), post-it notes, big books (or chart paper with book passages written out or projected books- enjoyable text students can see in whole group time), paper, writing tools, lots of literature- mentor texts, sight word cards, a well stocked listening center- recorded books or eBooks, student book boxes (somewhere for students to each store the books they are reading).

Need small decodable books on a budget? Go here for free downloads.


Becoming a reader requires more than just practice reading. A firm foundation of skills and strategies needs to be laid. Some students just naturally understand how to decode, think about text, etc. For most, skills need to be directly taught- sight word system, phonemic awareness program, concepts of print and decoding skills. I teach students the keys to reading, put them in the driver's seat with a book and sit next to them ready to assist and instruct so they can practice. Students work hard as we decode, wonder, giggle, question, think and talk through the text.


One year, I had a little boy that went home after the first day of kindergarten and cried. He was expecting to learn to read that day and was so disappointed to not walk away as a reader. I learned that students need feel they are making progress from day 1. It's so easy to pick one skill and teach it so student go home feeling the whole day was worthwhile. Students come to school wanting and hoping to learn to read. We fail our students by not assisting them properly in the process, blaming them for not trying or finding reasons and excuses for why they failed instead of fixing our instruction.

The reality? Students are motivated to learn to read when they enter school. We kill their motivation. This is one of the biggest reasons students learn to read but never become readers. There is no joy left in reading instruction. We are so busy monitoring and checking and teaching, that we forget reading is supposed to be fun!

Every book is an opportunity for a conversation. Talking about books and authors like they are good friends should be standard practice in our classrooms.

  • Reading Logs
  • Timers
  • Not reading aloud to students regularly
  • Close Reading that drags on for too long
  • Round robin reading
  • Confusing skill instruction
  • Holding reading hostage: refusing to let early readers try
  • Reading groups that are too large
  • Lack of support for kids as they struggle through
  • Expecting all students to read the same books
  • Material that is at the wrong reading level
  • Boring material- not targeting interest
  • Expecting or demanding perfection
  • Anything that makes reading a chore instead of a joy

There are wonderful picture books that will bring life to every subject regardless of grade level. Go to your school library and find some. If your school library doesn't have what you need, go to your public library. The more we make reading exciting, desirable, interesting and applicable to all subjects through our modeling and attitudes, the more our students will want to try.

The Last Piece: Helping Parents Support Reading at Home

Grab my [free] The Sneaky Parent's Guide to Growing Readers to share with your families. 

May you always teach joyfully.



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