15 February 2010 09:16 AM

Reluctant Readers and Sylvan's "School Success Challenge"

by Dr. Rick

Today’s blog deals with motivating students.  It begins with an email from a mom with a reluctant reader and ends with news about a cool new contest that lets the winner designate $10,000 to the school of his or her choice.  Read on. 

The Dr. Rick Blog gets lots of questions about motivating reluctant readers, especially middle school boys. 

Here’s a typical example. 

A homeschoool mom tells us that her eleven –year-old son “struggles” with reading even though his skills are good.  Comprehension isn’t a problem, but even when he reads something interesting, he’ll quickly get “bored” and unfocused.  She says he’s good in other subjects, has good general knowledge, has good handwriting skills, and an excellent memory.  He just doesn’t seem to like reading. “Have I done something wrong?” she wonders. 

Homeschool mom, you haven’t done anything “wrong.”  Short attention spans and eleven-year-old boys go hand in hand.  From what you describe -- good comprehension, good memory, good handwriting, good math skills, and good grades in other subjects -- he sounds like a typical pre-adolescent.  For this age, it's not abnormal for kids to be interested in a topic for a short but intense time before going on to another interest.

You say he reads when it's a topic he's interested in, even though it's for a short period.  Here's what I'd recommend.


  1. Ask the neighborhood or local school librarian for recommendations.  What are the popular books among other boys his age?  I'll bet the recommendations have something to do with sports, mystery, spookiness, humor, or science fiction.  Ask who the most popular authors are.  When he realizes that reading doesn't have to be "boring" (the most popular word for eleven-year-olds), he can discover his own favorite author or subject.
  2. Ask other moms what their kids are reading.  Ask them what their kids' reading habits are, too.  You'll probably find out that your boy's reading habits are not so worrisome.
  3. Don't let him slide, though.  Reading, after all, is fundamental to all other learning.  Establish some kind of reading routine the two of you can support -- a certain amount of reading time each day.  Make it pleasant and even fun.  Maybe the rest of the family can read at that time, too, so it doesn't feel like a chore meant just for him.  Encourage him to talk about his books to his friends.  If he sees that his friends are interested in Harry Potter, too, or whatever subject he chooses, he'll feel part of a group 
  4. Take an interest in his reading.  Take him to the library or a book store.  Let him select the books and subjects, and give him plenty of opportunity to talk to you about what he's reading.  Ask him thought-provoking questions that require him to think and that show you're interested, too.  Books can open up lots of interesting, fun discussions.
  5. Set some goals with him.  Maybe a certain number of book chapters or magazine articles each week.  Or maybe a time goal, say beginning with ten minutes of uninterrupted reading and extending to longer periods later.  Then, celebrate with him when he meets those goals.  Decide on some "rewards," like some extra time with you -- without siblings -- or an extended weekend bedtime or a favorite food treat.  Compliment his sticking to his reading routines and reaching his goals. 

Encouraging kids to enjoy reading is one of parents' and teachers' greatest challenges, but when we're successful it comes with great rewards.  Making him a lifelong reader is a gift he'll never outgrow. 


Here’s another way to motivate middle- and high-schoolers.  Check out a new online sweepstakes from the company I work for, Sylvan Learning, that allows a happy winner to designate $10,000 to the school of his or her choice. 


Starting today and ending on March 31, 2010, Sylvan’s School Success Challenge features an electronic game board filled with questions about algebra, grammar, vocabulary, and college-prep subjects, among others.  Participants get a chance to win the Grand Prize of a $5,000 Carnival® Cruise to the Caribbean, a yearlong subscription to SylvanMathPrep.com (an online math resource for kids in grades 7-12), and that $10,000 donation to a lucky school.  Also, prizes include a Mac laptop, an Amazon Kindle®, Nintendo® DS, and some great gift cards.  Great for individual students, teachers and their middle or high school classes, and parents.


Interested?  Want more details?  Want to play?  Register for the challenge at www.SylvanChallenge.com.


Let the games begin!


21 December 2009 09:24 AM

Reading Comics Aloud to Kids: 10 Strategies That Enhance Literacy

by Dr. Rick

We welcome back guest-writer Peter Gutiérrez to the Dr. Rick Blog.  Peter will be presenting a symposium on comics and literacy at the 2010 annual conference of the International Reading Association in Chicago along with Josh Elder and David Rapp of Northwestern University. Peter has also written or blogged on graphic novels and comics for School Library Journal, the New York Times, and ForeWord Reviews, where he is a contributing editor.


Nothing would appear to be simpler or more intuitive than reading a comic aloud to children. Just pick it up and dig right in, doing all the funny voices, hamming it up as necessary, and adding extra oomph to the sound effects as you see fit. And guess what—that’s pretty much all there is to it. You’ll have a great time, so will the kids, and maybe they’ll even be inspired to keep reading on their own.


But, hey, are you interested in making the experience even more of a literacy-builder? And possibly doing so in a kind of stealth mode that kids won’t object to per my previous post (The Case for Adding Graphic Texts To Your Read-Alouds)? Great, because here are some tips and techniques I’ve picked up as both a teacher and a dad:

  1. There are plenty of quality, digest-sized comics published for kids—but these are not optimal for read-alouds. No comic is, actually, if the lettering or panels are too small. Sure, kids will still be able to enjoy the narrative but they won’t be able to follow your reading process as an act of decoding and navigating text quite as well.

  2. Use a finger to guide kids to follow your place in the text. This is arguably more important in comics than in prose, including picture books. That’s because comics tell stories in small, discrete increments where the art, which is integral, changes with every panel. If you don’t focus a child’s attention, it can wander over an entire spread while you keep reading, essentially changing your words into a half-listened-to audio track. While guiding young eyes like this, take care not to cover any art that needs to be seen, such as the characters or their facial expressions. Here’s what I’ve found works: keeping a fingertip at the bottom of the speaking character. One happy result of this technique is that your wrist or arm can cover the panels to come, helping your audience focus on the text at hand and preventing scanning ahead.

  3. Linger on silent panels. The temptation, especially for kids, is to do the opposite. A silent panel can seem like filler, something to skip over until the action picks up again. But it’s really an opportunity for you to pause and ask a question or two. For a younger child this might be, “What’s happening here?” For a more experienced reader it might be, “Hmmm, why do you think this is silent? What idea or feeling is the writer trying to emphasize here?” Better yet, you might occasionally want to ask something like, “If there were a thought bubble for this panel, what would you put it in? What is the character thinking here?”    
  4. Pause before page-flips. Often creators will structure narratives so that this natural break introduces a reveal or a particularly dramatic moment. That’s why they’re great for practicing the comprehension strategy of making predictions. “What do you think will happen next? What do you think we’ll see when we turn the page?”  

  5. Analyze splash pages and double-splashes visually. Often there’s not a huge amount of text on such pages, so as adults we want to move ahead to where the substance of the story resumes. But let’s not be in such a rush. Kids love to examine large tableaux for details—think Where’s Waldo? The trick is to connect visual literacy back to more conventional story elements such as setting. “Wow, this is some picture—what kind of place is this? What are your clues? What kind of feeling does the atmosphere create, in the characters or in you?”

  6. Prompt kids to participate at least once every couple of pages. For example, when you come across a new character with a speaking part, stop and say something like this: “Hey, this guy is new. Have any ideas on the voice I should use for him? Why don’t you read this balloon here and give me a sense of how you think he should sound.” The idea is to treat a comic like a script, something to be performed, and to use the visuals and typography as stage and delivery directions for how it should be performed.

  7. Another way to prompt participation and monitor comprehension is to use sentence-starters and leading questions: “It looks like they’re putting their eggs in a—what is that thing?” Or: “Here it appears that they’re boarding the ship to go to…?”

  8. Make sound effects an opportunity to reinforce phonics skills since there is no semantic meaning to them. Where possible, get kids themselves to supply the sound effects. “Think you can handle all the explosions, weird laughs, and creaking doors?” And a question from me to you: do you really think you’ll need to ask this question twice?

  9. Be on the lookout for challenging vocabulary. Kids have a tendency to gloss over such text and instead rely on the art to make sense of a story. Turn this coping strategy on its head by coaching kids to use the visuals as context clues to figure out the meanings of unknown words and phrases.

  10. Reinforce the comprehension strategy of making inferences. This is a big one. Comics require readers to make inferences within panels and, à la Scott McCloud, between panels in what are called the “gutters.” It’s your job to make sure that some of the subtlety in characterization or storytelling doesn’t get lost in kids. So, without overdoing it, pause briefly to say things like, “Wait, why is she doing this now? What’s on her mind?”  Above all, keep these interactions brief—you don’t want to spoil the pacing of the story or make kids “pop out” of the experience and feel like they’re being assessed rather than being entertained.

Well, that’s it. Have your own tip to add? Then please leave a comment. Want to continue the conversation? Then please to write to me—and thanks for reading this. Now go find a kid or two and read to them.

12 February 2009 11:58 AM

Reading's Up in America

by Dr. Rick

Good news for readers of fiction.  In January, the National Endowment for the Arts (www.nea.gov)  released a survey, “Reading on the Rise,” that shows the number of Americans reading fiction for pleasure has increased for the first time since the NEA began studying such matters in 1982.  A little more than half (50.2%) reported reading fiction, up from 46.7%.


That’s music to any English teacher’s ears, mine included.  And, it’s just in time for Read Across America Day, March 2.


People read for three major reasons.


They want information.  We read newspapers and magazines both online and in print, nonfiction – biographies and autobiographies, for example – and other sources of information when we want to learn more about a subject or current event.


They need to perform a task.  We read directions when we need to put together that bookcase from Ikea, to change a tire or the oil in our car, to re-wire our workspace, to learn how to operate a new gadget.


They just want pleasure.  We English teachers like to call this “the literary experience.”  It’s the experience of getting lost in a good book that captures our imagination, entertains us, transports us, enlightens us, expands our horizons.


So hearing that we Americans are reading more – in an age of endless other more flashy diversions no less – is one of those “good” news items fit to savor for a while.  The entire report is not exactly brimming with good news, though.


We’re reading more fiction, but the number of Americans reading books not required for work or school dropped again, as it has every year since 1982.  Does this mean we’re reading more but doing so only because someone is making us do so?


The survey does not include non-fiction.  I’m not sure why not.  Reading non-fiction can be just as much a “literary experience” as reading fiction.  (I’m a huge fan of David McCullough.)  But I won’t quibble.


The nay-sayers will carry on about fiction’s being the province of the “cultural elite.”  (By the way, can we ban that tired, meaningless phrase from public discourse?)  Defenders of non-fiction will cry “foul.”  And students will say it’s all homework anyway, so what’s the big deal?


I’m not sure it matters much.  In these days when good news seems more and more difficult to find, I’ll take whatever I can get.  More people are reading fiction?  I’m celebrating!

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