What to do when students won’t do reading homework

We all know the struggle of spending hours prepping a creative, engaging lesson for your favorite novel, only to get to class to find out half of your students didn’t even read the assigned chapter for homework. I remember the first time this happened, when I was a fresh new teach on a mission to change the world, one student and page at a time. How could I do this if my students wouldn’t even read the books that would should them new perspectives, teach them life lessons, and empower them to make a difference in this crazy world? I remember feeling crushed; my students had let me down, and it felt personal, like it was my fault.

Flash forward four years: THIS STILL HAPPENS. While this realization still creates a pit of dread in my stomach, I’ve learned a bit about how I can combat this perpetual problem that challenges so many English teachers. It’s a problem that I wish more people acknowledged, so that’s why I am writing this: to open the dialogue in the hope that we can come together to develop even more practical strategies.

But first, let me preface this post with a few disclaimers:

  • I do not have a magical secret solution that will result in 100% of kids completing their reading homework. I do have some practical strategies to help you maximize your instructional time when you know students aren’t reading, and I have a few ideas on how to get more students reading.
  • I have learned to be realistic, especially as a secondary educator who teaches regular (on grade level) English.  Therefore, I have accepted that some kids, no matter what you do, will just not read outside of class. It’s important to accept that, and it’s not an indication of failure on your part.
  • By accepting this, I am not giving up. In fact, I am doing the opposite: I am embracing the challenge and adapting my instruction to reach even more students, especially those reluctant, struggling readers who need my help the most.

If you’re ready for some no-nonsense tips from a fellow teacher who gets it, read on! What follows is a mixture of advice on how to cope with the problem of kids not reading, and how to get a few more kids to read. If you’ve found a strategy that gets 1o0 percent of your students to do the reading homework, then congratulations, you’re a SUPERHUMAN, and this blog post is not for you. But if you’re a teacher who realizes that perfection is not possible, and you’re looking for a few ways to plan lessons that will increase your impact, even when kids aren’t reading, then you’re in the right place.

BE FLEXIBLE

If you realize the majority of students haven’t read and you know that your existing lesson will likely flop because most of them will be clueless, what do you do? You’re probably conflicted because you don’t want your lesson to fail, but you don’t want your plans to be at the mercy of the non-readers. You don’t want to send the message that it’s okay for students to skip out on their reading homework, and you don’t want the kids who are consistently reading to suffer. But sometimes you may have to adjust your plans in order to maximize the impact of your instructional time. It is possible to do this while still reinforcing the importance of consistent reading, but you may have to get creative with your approach.

For example, during our Gatsby unit, my students were supposed to read the last half of Chapter 7 for reading homework. I had split this lengthy and momentous chapter in two sections, to ease the reading load, thinking this would help the kids. All was well in three of my four classes, but in one of them, I had a whopping TWO students–out of 18–read. I found this out by simply asking them as they filed in my room; luckily, the kids were honest and they just told me, because they knew they had let me down. I was soooooooooo excited to discuss the Plaza Hotel showdown between Gatsby and Tom and Myrtle’s tragic death, and they knew they had killed my vibe. I made it clear to my students that I was disappointed and this was unacceptable. But I also knew that carrying on with my lesson as planned would be ineffective. My lesson plan was to take a reading check, discuss the chapter, complete an engaging Gatsby vs. Tom: Who is winning? Activity while we watched the movie clip, and answer a few analysis questions as an exit ticket. I knew that all of my kiddos would fail the reading check. I knew that the 2 kids who read would be raising their hands to discuss, and maybe a few others would jump in, trying to guess at answers just to make me happy. The discussion would flop, and I also refused to reward my students with the movie scene when they hadn’t completed the reading in the first place.

Thinking on my feet, I “struck a deal” with my students. I explained the situation and calmly communicated my frustration, emphasizing that I could not plan engaging, interactive lessons if they weren’t doing their part and reading. I gave them 15 minutes to finish the chapter, and then we proceeded with the reading check and lesson. This allowed for a much better discussion, and although my students had some extra work to finish for homework, I ended class much more confident. They read, discussed, and learned…all of them. It wasn’t ideal, but it was better than going through the motions with 16 kids lost and only two truly learning.

Another option involves having the students who didn’t read make up the reading homework while you lead a mini-lesson, discussion, or other activity with the group of students who read. Yes, this requires the ancient art of being in two places at the same time, but as teachers, we are used to bopping back and forth between groups of students.

My main advice is simply to consider your options. Think about the greatest number of students you can reach. How can you best serve them while still upholding high expectations? I think of it this way: I can control what happens in the mere 42 minutes that I have with my students each day. What happens at home is beyond my control, so I have to maximize the impact I can make. That means being flexible and adapting to each group of students that come through my door each class period.

PLAN LESSONS THAT AREN’T COMPLETELY DEPENDENT ON THE READING 

This is as close as I can get to a real solution to this never-ending challenge. It may sound counter-intuitive, but trust me, it will actually force your non-readers to learn more and it prevent the panic that sets in when you realize your completely text-dependent lesson will fail miserably. It took me about two years to genuinely accept that some kids will not read a single page at home, but once I did, I adjusted my approach. While it can be irritating when kids don’t read, it’s still my job teach all of my students while they are in my class. I refuse to let my non-readers sit in class with nothing to do because that’s precisely what they want to do. They did nothing for homework, and they want to do nothing in class. Not happening! I will at least force them to work and learn while they are within the four walls of my classroom. 

To do this, I incorporate a lot of excerpts and close read activities that can be done even if a student hasn’t done the assigned reading. I often pull in excerpts in the form of learning stations. I’ll search for important excerpts that students can analyze even without having read the rest of the chapter, and then I’ll pair these with questions. I’ve done this with characterization, word choice, symbolism, and more. In my The Great Gatsby Chapter 4 Learning Stations, students analyze small snippets of the conversation between Nick and Gatsby in which Gatsby explains his background. At each station, students analyze Nick’s belief in Gatsby on a scale of 1-10, 1 being “Liar, Liar, pants on fire” and 10 being “Complete trust.” I also have The Great Gatsby Chapter 5 Symbolism Stations where each station contains excerpts about a different symbol in the novel. Once again, even students who haven’t read the chapter can closely read, dissect the excerpts, and make meaning by discussing the word choice and symbols with their peers. 

I also incorporate a lot of collaboration and small-group work, because whole group discussions can easily flop when many of your students haven’t read. If you’re only calling on the handful of kiddos who have read, that’s not productive. Neither is calling on students who can’t even recall basic plot points because they haven’t read. When you utilize learning stations and grouping strategies, students are more engaged and are exposed to more material. Sometimes I facilitate “discussion stations,” with different topics/questions that students rotate through. You can read about why I love learning stations here, how I design learning stations here, and how I  facilitate learning stations here.

STRUCTURE TIME TO READ ALOUD IN CLASS

Structuring in time to read aloud in class is the only way you can guarantee that students read. I wish I had more time to do this, but with my short class periods, time is limited. Sometimes it’s only a few important pages here and there. I do like to find time to read aloud the first chapter, if possible. This gives students a foundation for the novel, and it allows me to model my thinking and pause for discussion. If you do it right, reading the first chapter can spark interest in reluctant readers who otherwise wouldn’t have picked up the book. It can also offer some confidence to struggling readers who otherwise might not have gotten through the first chapter when reading independently. If all else fails and your kids don’t read a single chapter for homework, you can rest assured that they were exposed to one chapter. They can’t technically say, “I didn’t read ANY of that” book, and their “I don’t read” streak is broken. Mwahaha! 

READING CHECKS OR OTHER ASSESSMENTS FOR ACCOUNTABILITY

If kids know they get away without reading, they will. I believe that there should be some form of accountability to encourage students to read by the assigned deadlines, which are there for a reason. I like to utilize brief Google form reading checks to provide accountability and the data I need to inform my instruction. Who is reading? Who is not? Who is reading but struggling to comprehend? When a student fails a reading check, I check in to determine the issue and provide support and remediation. My school has a retake policy, so I do allow students to retake reading assessments. Sometimes I have a different version of the reading check, but other times, I will do a verbal reading check as I skim through the chapter and ask the student questions designed to assess understanding.

It’s important to note that chapter reading checks are not your only option. You can get creative with choice boards, projects, and other activities that assess understanding. A Socratic seminar is another great option if you’re tired of giving reading checks every day reading homework is due.

SCAFFOLD AND SUPPLEMENT WITH FILM ANALYSIS

Film analysis can provide effective scaffolding for struggling students, but it also benefits students who aren’t reading. You don’t want to structure your unit so that students can coast on by knowing they can just watch the movie instead, but you can structure it so that the film is a supplement, rather than a substitute. The film is never the first item on my agenda; I show it only after students have analyzed the text in some way. So the film scaffolds, supplements, AND provides an incentive. Students have to “earn” it, but really it’s my secret plan to round out the learning experience, reach more students, and practice analysis in a more engaging and accessible format.

I know there is stigma to pressing play and showing the movie, but film clips offer an excellent visual opportunity to practice literary analysis standards. If you know how to frame it, and you emphasize to your students that you are teaching the same skills and standards, just through a different medium, then you will be able to justify your use of film to anyone who might walk in your room and challenge you (if that’s a fear).

To practice citing “strong and thorough textual evidence” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.1), students can cite details from the film. In addition to analyzing narration and dialogue, students can cite a wide range of visual and auditory details to support analysis. Give students cues: Pay attention to facial expressions, the tone of voice, the sound effects, the colors, the background music, how the scenes are cut, how symbolism is represented, etc. The list goes on. Students may need a lot of pausing and prompting the first few times you analyze film, but soon enough, they will become expert observers.

To “analyze the impact of the author’s choices” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.3), ask students questions about the director’s choices and the effect of those choices. You can extend this to analyze the differences between the film and the text. Instead of asking students to merely explain the differences, ask them to analyze why the director made a certain change. What was the effect? You can ask similar questions about structural choices in the film (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.5), as sometimes films structure the plot differently, whether it’s through reordering the scenes or tweaking the ending.

Additionally, you can ask students to evaluate the changes they observe in the film. Is the film or text more effective? Why? As long as students are defending their answer and citing details, they are practicing the same skills. The trick, of course, is to make sure that your students’ skills transfer to the text. I think practicing the skills with film allows students to become much more comfortable with the elusive and intimidating concept of “literary analysis.” Really, you’re just training students to a) Be more observant and b) Be more inquisitive (to ask the question of “Why? Why did the author/director make this choice?”)

PROVIDE AS MANY RESOURCES AND AS MUCH SUPPORT AS POSSIBLE

Physical book? E-book? Audio recording? Check, check, check! I am fortunate that almost every book I teach is available online as an e-book and audio-book. Simply search on Google and YouTube, and you will (usually) be surprised with what you find. Some audio versions on YouTube aren’t perfect, but they’re better than nothing. If a sub-par audio version is the only way a student will read at home, my motto is “Whatever works!” Something…anything…is better than nothing. Some students are so busy with sports, jobs, and other extracurricular activities, and audio on the bus to an away game or in their car on the way to school in the morning might be their only option. I make a point to talk to kids who I know are busy; I will ask them, “When are you going to read tonight? How are you going to make it work?” This question forces them to plan ahead and learn to manage their time–a skill that many students don’t automatically practice. Help your students make reading a habit, and give them suggestions on when/where/how they can fit their reading in.

If you don’t already do this, check in with students who don’t seem to be reading. Instead of getting frustrated and assuming the students are slacking off, start with, “Hey, it seems like you haven’t been able to keep up with the reading. What’s going on? How can I help?” Oftentimes, students will have a legitimate excuse–they are working from 4-10 pm, they are responsible for taking care of their younger siblings, etc. Some students will just be honest and tell you they’re lazy. It can be difficult for students to learn to manage their time. Instead of automatically getting frustrated, attempt to figure out the why, and then work with the student to make a plan. 

BE ENTHUSIASTIC AND ENGAGING

Okay, I had to say it, even though it is common sense. A little enthusiasm will go a long way! It’s not a magical solution for your most stubborn readers, but it will definitely help you reach a few more kiddos. Enthusiasm is contagious, so your goal should be to infect as many students as possible. This kind of attitude, paired with a strong relationship with your students, does make a difference. If you have a strong enough relationship with your kids, some will feel guilty and want to make up missed reading. I’m not above using a healthy dose of pathos to guilt trip my students, because it’s not an act. My little teacher heart really does get sad when I realize they haven’t read. I always tell them that I’m not even mad, just sad, and we all know that disappointment from someone you respect is much worse than anger. I once had a student who felt so bad about missing the reading that he turned on the audio at 7 am on the way to school and profusely apologized the next day. Now that’s dedication!

Our funeral for The Great Gatsby!

While it won’t guarantee that all students will read, planning engaging learning experiences for your students will help you reach more of those reluctant or struggling readers who claim to despise reading. If you’re merely assigning and reviewing study guides, then students won’t be engaged or motivated to read more. If you are mixing up your instructional strategies and finding creative ways to reel your readers in, then you’ll slowly but surely cultivate a crowd of kiddos who think reading is cool. They’ll want to read so they can fully participate in the lessons. I could write a whole blog post (or book) on how to make novel units more engaging, so stay tuned for that, but here’s just one small example: If a character dies (hello, any and all literature), throw a funeral and have students write eulogies to analyze characterization and the purpose of the character’s death. It’s a simple as a few LED tea light candles from the Dollar Tree and “sad music” from YouTube. Your students will notice and appreciate your effort!

I hope these tips help you confront the problem that we all know is there: Some high school students just won’t read. If you carry on with your lessons and pretend that this problem isn’t there, you’re only going to lose more kids. If you address the issue, you will force the non-readers to be more involved and you will catch a few more reluctant readers along the way. Admitting that some students won’t read at home is not a surrender. Rather, it’s a call to arms to fight the good fight by acknowledging your obstacle and adapting your instruction accordingly. So keep on fighting, my fellow teachers in the trenches!

If you have any other ideas on how to cope with the non-readers, I would love to hear about them in the comments below!

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2 Comments

  1. Rachel Ann
    June 27, 2018 / 4:04 pm

    Love this post and can’t wait to use some of these strategies! Your lessons and insights are always so helpful. RIP our good pal Gatsby!

  2. Angela
    June 27, 2018 / 5:04 pm

    Great post! I normally read in class, so that I can stop and ask guided questions along the way. But I think it’s a lot easier to do that on a block schedule. I love all of your ideas! And I love that you cited standards!

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