Engaging Reluctant Readers During Book Talks

I recently had the pleasure of speaking on Middle Ground Book Fest‘s panel on Engaging Reluctant Readers. One of the questions was about strategies for reaching reluctant readers in the library. I went into detail about my one-on-one approach with readers, but I wanted to shed some light on another approach that I use: high energy book talk field trips.

Most public libraries offer something like this already. Schools can book a time to travel to the library, where they get a tour, an introduction to library services, and a book talk presentation of new items. I’ve written about Interactive School Outreach: aka Class Visit Magic before. But today I want to focus on how to take your book talk presentations to the next level, in a way that will specifically reach reluctant readers.

Tone

Create a tone of authentic excitement. As ridiculous as this sounds, I try to model my book talks after big tech company’s product release events. I have a sharp PowerPoint with just the covers of each book. I lower the lights and let the book covers shine. I have legitimate reverence for each book that I talk about. I walk around the front of the room like a stage. I don’t read my book talks off a piece of paper. Sometimes I have instrumental music on each slide that sets the tone for the book and elevates the experience. I want kids to feel like they are at a special event, learning about something really exciting.

The main way to achieve this tone is to become wholeheartedly excited about each book yourself.

Easy Access to Materials

This is an obvious one, but I’m going to say it anyway: have huge displays around the room featuring every book you talk about, plus readalikes. For reluctant readers, you want to reduce every possible barrier between them and their book. Also, the visual of all the books can help show the reader that there are hundreds of books out there to be discovered – not just the handful that they’ve tried and hated.

Tangible Validation

Give every kid in the audience a checklist of the books you will talk about, and a pencil. Ask them to put a check mark next to any book that peaks their interest. By asking them to physically acknowledge which books they are interested in, you are helping them decide to “buy in” to reading.

Another approach that I often use is giving each kid a handout with every book cover, and a 1 or 2 sentence blurb for each. This helps the super avid readers who want to borrow all the books on the list, but have to save some for later. It helps the kids who take the list home and give it to their parents as a birthday wish list (yes this has happened!) But it really helps reluctant readers who might need a little more time before they’re ready to start the book. If that list is still kicking around in their backpack by time their next book report assignment rolls around, you may have saved them a lot of frustration.

The Power of Peers

When I do these events, I typically do short book talks for about 10 titles. After every book I ask the audience to raise their hand if they think they might want to read this book. I do this for three reasons. First, it helps me see what types of books are more popular, which will help shape future book talks. Second, it gives kids an opportunity to show their excitement in the middle of the presentation. And third, it signals to reluctant readers that it’s okay to be excited about reading.

We know that kids value the opinions of their peers higher than the opinions of authorities in their lives. Take any opportunity you have to let that contagious peer-to-peer excitement blossom.

Another way to encourage peer-to-peer excitement is to book talk one or two fairly popular books, and ask if anyone has read them before. I start by asking if anyone could tell me why they liked the book. Suddenly you’ve got five tweens waving their hands, ready to gush to their classmates about they book you’re promoting.

In this high school book talk visit, I included appeal factors for each title on the slide.

Follow Up

After your presentation, allow for browsing of the collection. Be proactive about asking kids if you can help them find a book. As time goes on, you will develop an eye for which kids are reluctant readers. Don’t come on too strong or pushy, but make sure they know that you can help them find a book they will love. Even if they don’t take you up on it that day, you may have planted a seed that will give them the confidence they need to ask for help later.

Another follow up tactic that I’ve used before is to hand out Book Suggestion Request forms. It’s entirely possible that no matter how thoughtfully I select by book talk titles, there are kids in the audience who won’t connect with any of them. By giving them a form to fill out during or after the presentation, they can let you know what type of book they want to read, and you can provide them with a personalized list. I would ask questions like: What are some books, movies, or video games that you like? What are some books that you don’t like? Why didn’t you like them? What kind of story do you want to read next (funny, exciting, romantic, scary, realistic, magical)?

There is no “one size fits all” approach to reaching reluctant readers. As we discussed in our panel, there are many reasons why someone might be reluctant to read. But the one common thread that I’ve noticed when effectively reaching reluctant readers is that they have to feel heard. Whether you are giving a book talk to their class or helping them one-on-one, make sure that every kid knows that you are not going to tell them what to read. You are going to listen to them, and help connect them with a book they like.

What are some of your strategies for reaching reluctant readers during book talks?

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