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Best Ever Literacy Survival Tips: 5 Super Practical Ideas for Motivating Kids to Read More Challenging Texts in the Age of CCSS!

by Lori Oczkus
 | Apr 02, 2013
How can we motivate our students to reach the CCSS goal of having students “set goals to read their level of books as well as increasingly more difficult fiction and informational texts” (Oczkus, 2012)?

If you think about it, setting such goals for one’s reading is what sets apart a “real reader” from someone who only reads what is required in school. A real reader is someone who approaches reading with heated passion, who talks with others about books, seeks out books, compares and devours books for enjoyment and for information, and passes judgment on issues in books (Oczkus, 2012).

Often our schools teach reading but don’t necessarily take the time to formally teach students about the “will” to read or how to become avid lifelong readers (Layne, 2009). I work in classrooms every week where we experience the following problems with motivation and reading:


  • get stuck on one kind of book, such as the Junie B. Jones series or mysteries.
  • experience difficulty selecting just-right books, and select books that are too difficult or too easy.
  • are not motivated to read at all.
If our goal is to expand the reading repertoires of our students to include increasingly more difficult fiction and informational texts, then we desperately need some powerful strategies to engage and motivate our students to read more.

Barnes and Monroe (2011) developed some simple guiding principles for struggling readers that apply to any classroom to motivate kids to read. They suggest that we give students choice, share books daily in teacher book talks, encourage students to share books with each other, allow students to sit on Pilates balls and the floor while reading, and offer reading on laptops. The researchers also suggest that we make the time to confer individually with students about their reading.

When I enter a classroom to teach or coach for the first time, I always begin my lesson by asking the students to take out their independent reading books. I quickly circulate around the room, making note of what students are reading and chatting informally about the reasons for their choices. The mix is very telling; for example, books in a fifth grade classroom range from picture books and informational texts to young adult chapter books and magazines. From this quick “survey” about reading, I can easily see evidence of the reading levels and the motivation of the students I am about to teach.

My question to the students is always, “What are you reading next, and why?” Hopefully, the students are challenging themselves to move into a wide variety of texts at a mix of reading levels for different purposes. If you simply have your students keep a list of books they’ve read that includes dates and maybe a quick, one-sentence summary, a 1-5 score, and reason for the score, this log can be a place to record their reading goals as well. Be sure to be a Super Model (Oczkus, 2012) and share YOUR reading log as well. (Just keep the 50 Shades series off your list!)

Here are some practical and effective student-centered ideas that will help move students into the CCSS goal-setting mode—and ensure that they move forward in their reading levels and book choices,

Life Books (Oczkus, 2012)

Students select one or two favorite books of their lives to share with the class. These can be picture books from childhood or chapter books. They must give reasons for their choice and explain the significance of the book. I like videotaping students using an inexpensive camera and then posting the quick segments on the class or school website or blog. Ivan, a sixth grader, shared his love of CHARLOTTE’S WEB by E B. White because Charlotte was a hero and it was the first book his dad read to him. Be sure to share your favorite books from your life or childhood and reasons why you love them as well.

Students may stand in a stroll line—two lines facing partners to discuss books and upon cueing students rotate to the next partner. You can also go to Scholastic’s Read Every Day Campaign to see famous movie stars, television stars, authors, and musicians’ lists of favorite books too. Or you could follow what one elementary school did; they posted teachers’ childhood favorite book covers in the hallway next to photos of the teachers.

Key to Challenging Texts: Students see what books others cherish and hear the reasons for reading those books. Share your books too and why some of them include challenging titles. How did those books stretch you?

Book Idol (Oczkus, 2012)

This is a mock television show complete with three judges each with distinct “personalities” created by the students. For example, one judge might be a skateboarder, one a professor, and another a fancy gentleman or lady with an accent.

The judges sit at a table facing the “audience” and use slates to write scores for the book the class is judging. One student role-plays as an interviewer and each of the judges shares his or her score for the book and distinct reasons for their thinking. The master of ceremonies might also invite the students in the audience to hold up their scores and tell partners reasons and evidence for their thinking. Students may give scores for the overall book, the author’s craft, or the character’s actions. Nonfiction books may be rated on their text features and treatment of the subject.

After the Book Idol show, encourage students to write a paragraph with evidence as they discuss their views of the book. Videotaping makes this a fun activity to share. The class may partner with a buddy class in another town or state and videoconference to share their show live.

Key to Challenging Texts: As students discuss a book they’ve all read, using the Book Idol show format, they reflect more deeply on the content of the book and the accessibility. Use the judges concept to give reasons for selecting new books to read as well. Make challenging texts part of the line up of choices and allow students to select titles to read either as a class or in small groups.

Observation Rubric of Reading Motivation (Oczkus, 2012)

Here is a rubric from BEST EVER LITERACY SURVIVAL TIPS: 72 LESSONS YOU CAN’T TEACH WITHOUT (Oczkus, 2012) that you can use to help you confer with students over their reading habits (adapted from the work of Edmunds & KLBauserman, 2006).

The rubric will help you score student behavior in reading on a scale of 1-4 (4 = exceeds expectations; 3 = meets expectations; 2 = needs assistance; and 1 = struggles). Score your students as you confer with them on the way they select books, how their interests influence their choices, and how characteristics of books guide book selection (genres, size of book, etc.). You may also want to chart how students respond to book referrals.

Key to Challenging Texts: Use this rubric to observe your students and to motivate them to set goals for reading and accessing more challenging texts.

The 7 Times a Day Read Aloud Challenge (Oczkus, 2012)

Keep a stack of reading material in a bin on your desk or somewhere you can easily access throughout the day. Assign a monitor to check off each time you read aloud to the class for a total of 7 hits! One of the read aloud sessions should last 15-20 min long. The other six are 1-2 minute “quickies” that might include a poem while students are lining up, an interesting newspaper article as students put their lunches away, or a menu or joke book during a transition time. Discuss purposes for reading each of these.

This is a great way to expose students to tons of reading materials at a variety of levels and to discuss different reasons people read. One teacher even went home and started doing the 7 times a day read aloud with her own children after school until bedtime. The kids keep track and each of the read alouds only takes a minute of plopping on the couch, floor, or even in the driveway in the car. They love it!

Key to Challenging Texts: You have many opportunities to share interesting challenging texts on a wide range of subjects when you make the 7 Times a Day Reading Challenge part of your schedule.

Summer Book Bags (Allington & McGill-Franzen, 2003, 2013; Oczkus, 2012) The summer slump rears its ugly head every year when our students from low socioeconomic backgrounds skip out classroom doors only to skip reading all summer long. The result is a loss of as much as three months of reading achievement. Contrast this to the higher socioeconomic neighborhoods where students make three month gains with trips to the library and bookstore ( Allington &McGill-Franzen, 2003).

p: NatalieSap via photopin cc
The difference between the two groups is access to books. The solution is simple: provide 10 to 12 books for students to choose to take home and read over the summer. Note that the key is the students choose their titles to take home. A volunteer or teacher contacts the students who struggle the most by telephone or other method to check on the reading. Researchers found that this $50.00 per student summer program motivates students to read more and significant impact is made on reading achievement.

In one of my project schools we targeted 37 of our intervention students in grades 3-5 by providing them with an array of choices of books to read. It was such a highlight of the year to see them enter the library where we displayed hundreds of books for them to choose from as they filled their summer book bags. The students plopped on the floor of the library to get final teacher approval for their choices and touchingly held onto the collections like they were precious treasures. For some of them, these were the first books they’d ever owned. We collected the books from used book stores, our local library book store, garage sales, and donations.

Key to Challenging Texts: Allowing students to take books home takes some coordination. If you can’t provide Summer Book Bags for all of your students, try to at least target your struggling readers, those who have the most to lose and gain. Make sure you are providing a wide range of books for those choices.

Also, give book talks about the various books and stand by as students select titles. Inspect their final choices to see that they’ve indeed filled their bags with a mix of on level and more challenging books that they really want to read. Discuss strategies for accessing the more challenging texts that include involving an adult to help read it, to partner read with a sibling, or to use a book on tape or other audio source.

What are you doing to motivate students to read more in your school and classroom? Please share!

Come see featured IRA author Lori D. Oczkus at IRA 2013! Lori’s session, “Best Ever Literacy Survival Tips: 72 Lessons You Can't Teach Without,” takes place on Sunday, April 21, from 1 PM to 2 PM. Lori will also be signing at the IRA Bookstore on Sunday, 4/21 at 2:30PM.


Allington, R. L., & McGill-Franzen, A. (2003). The impact of summer setback on the reading achievement gap. PhiDelta Kappan, 85(1), 68-75.

Allington, R. L. & McGill-Franzen, A. M. (2013). Summer reading: Closing the rich/poor reading achievement gap. New York: Teachers College Press.

Barnes C. & Monroe, R. (2011). Reading motivation strategies to motivate struggling readers K-8. Retrieved January 20, 2012 from faculty.rcoe.appstate.edu/koppenhaverd/s11/5040/papers/Candace&Rachael.pdf.

Edmunds, K. M., & Bauserman, K. L. (2006). What teachers can learn about reading motivation through conversations with children. The Reading Teacher, 59(5), 414-424. Koi:10.1598/RT.59.5.1

Layne, S. L. (2009). Igniting a passion for reading: Successful strategies for building lifetime readers. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Oczkus, L. (2012). Best Ever Literacy Survival Tips: 72 Lessons You Can’t Teach Without. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Lori D. Oczkus is a literacy coach, author, and popular speaker across the United States. Tens of thousands of teachers have attended her motivating, fast-paced workshops and read her practical, research-based professional books. Lori has extensive experience as a bilingual elementary teacher, intervention specialist working with struggling readers, and staff developer and literacy coach. Her most recent book with IRA is BEST EVER LITERACY SURVIVAL TIPS: 72 LESSONS YOU CAN’T TEACH WITHOUT.

© 2013 Lori Oczkus. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.

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