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Strategy Spotlight: Sparking Reluctant Readers

A Florida teacher turns reluctant readers into insatiable bookworms with some butcher paper and a little ingenuity.

By Lani Aquino

This first installment of Strategy Spotlight comes from English Journal’s A Blind Date with a Literary Soulmate and shares an affordable and engaging method for getting even the most reluctant of readers to crack open a book or two. Erin Parke, a high school English teacher in Florida, was hitting a brick wall when it came to spurring students to pick up books and read. She had the tools of the trade on the ready with a wide variety of titles in her classroom library. Her selection was both high-interest and organized by genre, a book lover’s dream, but no interest was shown.

She tried her hand at book talks, literature circles, posting signs with current reads in the classroom window, expressing all the benefits of making reading a favorite pastime, but nothing was making any of the books leap from the shelves and into students’ hands. In thinking about the bevy of titles she was providing, she began to wonder whether that first impression made by the book jacket was the crux of the issue. Were students unable or unwilling to navigate the synopsis and gain an understanding of the tale that would be found inside?

Enter butcher paper and a marker.

Parke decided to take the book jacket guessing game out of the equation and create an entirely different experience for students. She selected multiple titles, covered each book in red butcher paper, and wrote several bullet points on the front sharing some of the content to be found within the pages:

-   Female protagonist, coming of age, nerd stuff, romantic

-   Mystery, modern take on classic literature, teen protagonists, part of a series

-   Social justice, female protagonist, police brutality

-   LGBTQ, romance, coming-of-age

She titled this mystery reading experience Blind Date with a Book and placed the wrapped books on the whiteboard ledge with their bulleted content facing forward. In her classroom, she made this book experience an extra credit assignment. Students were given the option to choose a book by bullet information only, put in the effort to read at least half of it, and return the book with a completed “Rate the Date” slip, whether they finished the entire book or not. The slip asked readers if they would consider another title by the same author, if they would recommend the book to a friend, a short 3-5 sentence review, and the reasoning for not completing the book (i.e., confusing, boring, difficult) if they chose to stop midway. Upon completion of the rate slip, another title could be chosen, but it couldn’t be opened until after the student left class.

Dating literature was a hit! Students in the later periods were crestfallen when hardly any bullet-pointed covers were left for the choosing. Parke set out to create more blind date packages, and even the most reluctant of readers could be found immersed in the pages of books. Students made the connection to not judging a book by its cover when they were able to start thinking about the books based on their content and big ideas alone.

While this may be a time-consuming task at the beginning, a system could definitely be devised to get books prepared for selection. Teachers could work together to create the bulleted synopses of popular titles in a divide and conquer method. These synopses could be typed up and glued or taped to the covered books. While Parke is a high school teacher, this would be a method that could engage readers at other levels too.

Applications for Other Areas

  • Reviews games could be devised where students are tasked in matching the information bulleted to a particular periodic element, animal, time period, historical event, historical figure, math theorem, etc. Teachers could create these, or student groups could be tasked with the job.
  • Create cards with bulleted information to help students choose research topics and or project-based learning topics.
  • The blind date method could also be used in fine arts courses to choose artistic styles to replicate, musicians/musical genres to study, instruments to sample, etc.

Other Strategies for Spurring on Reluctant Readers

Adding a bit of mystery can be just what’s needed to get students reading. Erin Parke was able to create that mysterious allure with some butcher paper and a few enticing details about the wrapped tomes. Be sure to check back for future Strategy Spotlights that highlight strategies teachers use to impact learning.

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