5 Golden Rules for Investing Middle School Students in Reading

Reading is frustrating when it isn't an innate skill for students.
Reading is frustrating when it isn’t an innate skill for students.

Jake doesn’t like reading. He doesn’t enjoy reading non-fiction, which is what we read because it makes up most of the Common Core aligned assessments. He is in 7th grade, but struggles to decode words and comprehend the key points of a text. He also struggles with written communication; he has trouble stringing together coherent thoughts, most of his words are spelled incorrectly, and he rarely uses punctuation. 

As a teacher, which of these challenges would you work with Jake on? And how would you help him with 30 other students in the room?

What of these reading weaknesses was the greatest challenge Jake faced? What if he had an emotional and physical meltdown whenever he felt frustrated? What if his background included numerous foster homes and he didn’t know how to handle challenge without shutting down?

Jake (name changed) was a student I invested the most support in. There was more content that needed to be remediated than I could’ve done in a year with one-on-one teaching. Yet, I also knew that he wouldn’t be receptive in learning anything until he knew I cared about him and truly believed that becoming an effective reader was crucial to his success.

Finding the 'perfect' book that excites and engages reluctant readers is crucial.
Finding the ‘perfect’ book that excites and engages reluctant readers is crucial.

Teaching reading takes a unique balance of scientific and creative skills. For example, a teacher needs to know phonetics to teach students to decode words. Yet, the same teacher also needs to build a relationship with her students that she can use to motivate them when reading feels difficult. Learning to motivate students, invest in them, and push them to master rigorous content is the most difficult aspect of teaching ELA.

This is in part due to the amorphous nature of building relationships. Schools of Education don’t teach classes on building relationships, but they emphasize the importance of building them. I’d guess this is because every teacher has a different style and building relationships only works when it’s authentic and organic.

Yet, in building relationships with the aim of improving literacy skills, I’ve found there are 5 keys to successful outcomes. Obviously every teacher wants to see his/her students grow on standardized tests like the STAR assessment that measures growth and on state accountability tests. It is equally important to think about mindsets you want to engender in your students by the end of the year. My ultimate goal is for students to seek out literature as a means of better understand the world, the opinions of others, and as a mirror to critically examine what they want from themselves.


1. Don’t spend the first week of school on content.

There is a LOT that needs to happen in your first week of school, and you want to take it at a slower pace than your typical teaching days to foster the tone for your year & to set really clear behavioral expectations. I use the first two days of school to share policies, procedures, and my syllabus with students because I want them to know my behavioral expectations & academic standards before we do anything else. After this, I typically share my background and why I became a teacher.

I use the remaining days of the week to learn more about students, facilitate activities that help students get to know one another to build a strong classroom community, and invest students in reading. If you are able to successfully accomplish these aims, you will save dozens of hours on streamlined classroom procedures, you’ll avoid behavioral issues, and your students will have a new lens to appreciate reading.

Check out my TPT store for the Reading Investment Powerpoint!

The number one way I invest my students in reading is by using one day to share a presentation of shocking statistics about the correlation between reading, success, criminal activity, income levels, etc. I compile the most moving statistics about reading into a Powerpoint and I pre-script discussion questions for class.

Teachers constantly tell students that reading is important, but it’s critical to show them the connections and allow them to form their own opinions about reading.

2. Read books alongside your students. 

I talked about one of my very reluctant readers, Jake, at the beginning of this post. The most effective way I engaged him in the joy of reading was by reading a book alongside him. This is no small time investment, but I’ve found that reading alongside 3 or 4 of your most reluctant readers has a huge impact on their reading growth and self-efficacy.

Nonfiction great for middle school boys and reluctant readers.
Nonfiction great for middle school boys and reluctant readers.

When we had a book fair at school, James was unilaterally excited about a non-fiction book entitled I am a Seal Team 6 Warrior. I was in awe that he so desperately wanted to purchase a book and nonetheless, a work of non-fiction, his least favorite genre by his own admission. I promptly bought a copy of the same book. I made a deal with Jake that we would each read a chapter of the book and we’d meet for lunch once a week to talk about it. If he finished the book, we would find time to watch a documentary on Netflix about Seal Team Six.

In reading this book together, I gained access to to Jake’s greatest reading challenges in a casual context outside of the classroom. I got to know his interests, inner dreams, and an unabashedly happy version of himself.

I’ve heard many teachers say, I don’t have time to do that. At the end of the day, we all have the time, but it’s a matter of where we’re investing our time and energy. This practice has proven equally successful with other students, and it has given me an avenue to explore YA literature that I might not find otherwise.

3. Talk to struggling readers frequently about what they are reading. 

It’s impossible to read a book independently with every student you teach. However, it’s critical to check in with all students about what they are reading, why they are reading it, what they like most about the story, and how it connect to their own lives. Conversations about reading should reinforce the ways in which readers comprehend and contextualize the words entering their brains. It should also serve as a powerful mechanism to build relationships with students.

For reluctant readers, you can’t expect them to be intrinsically motivated to do something that is both difficult and unpleasant. Therefore, you need to implement systems and projects in your classroom that force students to read and choose what they want to read. (See Golden Rule 5). When you know every student is reading independently, the check-ins become all the easier.

When Does a Teacher Have Time for a Check-In?

  1. Transition Times:  Between every block, I aim to pull 3-5 students aside to check in with them about what they are reading. I position myself between the door and my room so I can talk and monitor students.
  2. Bell Ringers: At the beginning of class, I typically start with a bell ringer. You should also know I believe there should never be a time when a teacher is sitting at his or her desk while students are in the room. When circulating to collect HW during the bell ringer, I check in with students.
  3. Intervention Blocks: At both schools where I’ve taught, we have a block that allows students to get ahead on homework, participate in RTI interventions, and seek help from specific teachers. I use this time to conduct reading check-ins.
  4. Test/Quiz Days: This is another opportunity to hold extended check ins with students. I typically reserve this time for longer reading conversations with students who I know are struggling the most.

4. Conversely, find ways to challenge your high-achieving readers. They need to grow too.

2443359e3bd028501a26a21e423f96e8As a Middle School ELA teacher who focuses on developing reading skills critical to literacy development, it’s hard to find time for everyone. I’ve seen the most regression from students who are naturally talented readers and are bored out of their minds in school.

These are students who you can push towards the classics and current popular fiction. I’ve found my advanced students are bored of the vanilla characters who overpopulate YA fiction. They are also able to articulate that they dislike about YA plot lines or character development, and this self-awareness is precisely what causes boredom.

I’ve found pointing students to popular fiction has renewed a love of reading.

Make sure you communicate with parents if you are recommending literature written for adults. I’ve never experienced an issue, but it’s important to check in with parents and let them know the books may contain mature content.

5. Develop projects that are differentiated and offer reading choice.

My classes have always been ability grouped (a decision made by my administration). On one hand, I find it helpful to have the opportunity to differentiate my materials and pacing to meet the needs of students. However, it’s easy in a class of reluctant readers to have an overwhelming negative sentiment towards literary that students who enjoy reading could counteract. Mixed abilities also allow for heterogenous grouping that can really target and remediate skill deficits that you might not be able to tackle in homogenous groups. Debate aside, the next golden rule works well for ability grouped or mixed ability classrooms.

I want my students to read at least four books independently of their choosing from different genres during the school year.

I am able to accomplish this through Common-Core aligned quarterly book projects. We read from a different genre each quarter. Students are given a list of pre-aprroved books for the genre that are sorted by Lexile levels. Students must select a book within their Lexile level, which my students know after taking the STARS test.

I develop reading pacing guides, and students are required to submit a reading response every week on Edmodo. Students typically spend about 5 weeks reading, and the remaining 4 weeks are devoted to a project that requires them to demonstrate reading comprehension, synthesis, and analysis.

Exemplar Newspapaer >> Project is available on my TPT Store.
Exemplar Newspapaer >> Project is available on my TPT Store.

My favorite book project from this year was in the historical non-fiction genre was the creation of a newspaper for their book. Students wrote an article a week that they posted to Edmodo for a grade and feedback. This was a great project because it was seamlessly Common Core aligned, the scaffolds to help students complete the newspaper occurred on a weekly basis, and the project was easy to differentiate for different abilities by reducing elements of the articles. Additionally, students chose their own books, which automatically increased investment. In my class with struggling readers, we read Titanic: Voices from the Disaster as a class, which ensured everyone was on track and made it easy for me to help students.

Designing your curriculum in a way that makes differentiation feasible, student choice central, and allows student creativity to flourish is the final golden rule to invest students in reading.

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