Teenagers HATE reading!

Kate Cory-Wright
Kate Cory-Wright

By Kate Cory-Wright

Seven Tips for Motivating Reluctant Readers

Extensive Reading is often defined as “reading a large amount of books for pleasure.” Sorry? Did someone say “reading” and “pleasure” in the same sentence?

Personally, I can’t think of a better way to spend an evening than curling up with a book. I can’t think of a better way to improve my foreign languages than by reading. Reading is pleasure for me. However, I recognise that for many students, reading is about as boring and alien as boxing or wrestling is to me. So how can we foster a love of reading in students who are reluctant? The following tips are based on my experiences of extensive reading with tweens and teens over the years.

  1. Consider your method.

The only time my school teachers successfully put me off reading was when we all had to read the same book and classes were spent analysing it to death, completing worksheets, etc. Is this the way to foster a love of reading in a reluctant reader? Unlikely. In fact, that is intensive reading, not extensive reading. Nowadays I have developed a method that treats the books like movies that students can watch in their free time. In other words, reading is:

  1. optional;
  2. not accompanied by tests or worksheets;
  3. students’ responsibility: they choose what, when, and how to read. If they don’t like the book they have chosen, they can abandon it and try another, just as they would change channels if the movie was unappealing.

So, how does this work in reality? Six months ago, I introduced my students to extensive reading. After explaining the benefits, I invited them to choose a book from my library and reminded them that it was optional to borrow a book. A few students took the lead. They chose books because they wanted to read. Others followed suit, slightly hesitantly. The last two students shook their heads and said “No, thank you.” My response? No comments, no persuasion. Their peers did the job for me! After two weeks of watching their classmates bring back books and borrow more, the last two decided to participate. It was their choice. One of those two is now the most avid reader in the class.

2. Provide Variety.

To foster the habit, students need to read a lot of books. But which books? Before now, I’ve made the mistake of choosing for them, but I failed. I remember suggesting a James Bond reader for Brandon, a 13-year-old student. He pulled a horrible face and instead chose a book about an Indian girl who gets sold into slavery! One tendency I have noticed over the years is that teens often borrow “information” books. At the British Council, we had a huge selection of genres, but the fantasy, mystery, sci-fi, romance, and adventure books often went untouched. Many teenagers preferred to read about nature, planets, history, etc. You can of course make suggestions, but be prepared for students to turn their nose up at your notion of “interesting.”

Since we have no idea what they will enjoy, variety is the key. Offer plenty of genres and topics. Readers are not the only option: try magazines, multiple-path books (see Atama-ii books), plays, audio books, ebooks, etc. Old books are fine, too. My students often choose “Tintin”, even though it is an old dog-eared comic book from my childhood!

  1. Easy does it.

Christine Nuttall suggests using the SAVE rule to promote reading. Offer students books that are Short, Appealing, Varied, and Easy. The focus here is EASY. If students struggle with unknown words in every paragraph, they are likely to give up. In intensive reading, we tend to study books that are higher than the students’ level. Extensive reading is the opposite. Easy does it. My current group of students uses the “five finger rule”: they choose a random page and spot how many words they don’t know. If it exceeds five, then it is probably not the right level for them.

  1. Your role.

If you are an avid reader, your students can pick up the habit from you. Tell your students about the wonderful things that they will gain from extensive reading, be a model. If students ever read in class, read a book yourself. Read the students’ books, too. And from time to time, show students a book that you’re reading. Spread the joy!

  1. Be creative.

Creating reading games or challenges can promote reading to reluctant students. For example, students who need some extrinsic motivation might enjoy reading their way through a bingo card. This way, they can feel their progress. Younger learners like to draw pictures and make dioramas, based on the book. Older learners enjoy technology, for example they can “pin” the book, or adapt their reading to a social activity.

Note: we do not need to provide post-reading activities. In the words of Bamford and Day (1998), the best post-reading activity is to read another book!

  1. Celebrate reading.

Children across the world celebrate books on World Book Day in March, but why only March? Choose your event and consider a fun activity:

* Dress up as a character from your favourite book. Take selfies, holding the book.

* Visit a bookstore to buy your first ever book or get your first card from a library.

* Hold a book fair (you can even raise money for the library).

* Make food and drink for a party. Name the food items after people in the books.

* Act out a scene from a book with your reading buddy.

  1. Trust your students

Marco is a 12-year-old student who sometimes fools around in my English classes, so I admit that I secretly doubted he was reading the books that he borrowed. Until one day there was a knock at the door… The man standing there, dressed in building overalls, introduced himself as Marco’s father. As we talked, I learned that he was illiterate but thanks to Marco he was learning to read. He was almost in tears as he described how he and Marco regularly read books on the sofa together in the evenings. I was almost in tears myself. Marco was not only reading, he was helping his father to read. How had I underestimated him so badly?

For many teachers, giving students the freedom to read with no post-reading task or test is an odd concept because it requires trust. “But how will I know if they are really reading the book?” teachers ask. The fact is, you don’t. School is full of tests. Extensive reading is a rare occasion when kids can do something for pleasure.

Wishing you every success and happiness in your extensive reading!


Bamford and Day (1998): Extensive Reading in the Second Language Classroom

Nuttall, C. (1996): Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign language


If you would like to learn more about extensive reading, you are cordially invited to join an iTDi Advanced Course in April. “The Power and the Joy of Extensive Reading” will be run by Malu Sciamarelli and Kate Cory-Wright. During the 4-week course, we will cover: extensive reading, setting up and running a reading program, and setting up a library.

The Whole Teacher – Kate

Connecting as a Community – Kate Cory-Wright

Kate Cory-Wright

A few years ago I left the ever-growing (and increasingly noisy) city of Quito, Ecuador, and moved to a tiny community in the Andes called San Juan. San Juan functions as a community in every sense. It centers around a small primary school next to the community center, where 40 elderly people are taught literacy and given free lunch every day. “Mingas”, the ancient Ecuadorian tradition of working together, play an important role: farmers help each other to plant crops, look for missing animals, and build new classrooms. There are no street lights, paved roads, or stores here. Just an overwhelming sense of peace I’ve never known before.



It sounds idyllic, and it is. But education is a huge obstacle for local children. There is no transport to the nearest village, where the secondary school is located. It’s a 3-mile uphill walk for the teenagers here! Secondary school consists mostly of rote learning. Classes are given by poorly trained unmotivated teachers from Quito, who live at the school from Monday to Friday. After school, kids work on their parents’ farms. Since most parents are illiterate, children get little parental help with their homework. Sadly, even the brightest children may not have bright futures. The chances are, they will become farmers, factory workers, or builders. Small wonder, then, that the locals reacted positively when I offered free English classes for their children.

The classes have been running for almost two years now. Most learners attend with a sibling, which means that the group is both mixed ability and mixed age (8 to 16 years!) Despite this mixture, my home operates as a classroom where we can work and relax as an integrated group. The students have made great progress, especially in speaking and listening, and their parents remain grateful, often sending me gifts from their farms (including live chickens!)

As for me, I’m still finding my way…

Most educators have a genuine wish to contribute to a happier society. We also wish to become “whole” as teachers. Yet, this is easier said than done. Despite decades of experience as a teacher, I have never been able to achieve these goals. In some cases, the long hours, large classes, and strict curriculum, gave me little chance to explore what it means to be “whole”. In other cases, the school obsession with English exams prevented me from keeping my intention alive. Now, at last, I can tap into my interests and passions. I can get to know my learners like friends, and care for them. Above all, I can experiment and fine-tune my goals.

Last Saturday I had “one of those classes”. You know the kind I mean… Nothing went according to plan and we ran out of time. That’s right. It was a wonderful lesson.

What happened? First, I reviewed vocabulary by placing candy in different parts of the living room and eliciting prepositions of place (the candy is on the table, etc). Then, half the class (Group 1) went out to play in the garden, while the others (Group 2) hid candy around the room. When Group 1 returned, they looked for the hidden candy. In order to eat the candy, they had to make a correct sentence about the location, using in, on, under, next to, etc. Group 2 listened and decided if the sentence was 100% correct.

Suddenly, I realized that this was working very well and could be developed further. So I added a new rule: next time they found a piece of candy, they had to describe the location using two sentences. Then a student suggested that friends could help each other in return for half the candy. More new rules were added (mostly by the students) until the task became more and more challenging. My intention had been to do a pair information gap on paper, but instead we played a spontaneous game. The final result? Everyone was able to confidently use prepositions of place.

“What’s so special about that?” you may be thinking. And you would be justified. There’s nothing original about the activity. Student involvement is common nowadays. And although the outcome was positive, it’s not so unusual. So what made it special?

Perhaps the best word to describe the lesson is connection. All the components came together. The class atmosphere was warm and supportive. The more I encouraged my students’ enjoyment and involvement, the more I rejoiced in it. I “went with the flow” and let go of my concerns (and my lesson plan). Above all, we worked like a community and we felt a sense of joint success. Spontaneously, we all did high-fives at the end of class.



No doubt you know this feeling, too? Sometimes everything just falls into place and you connect with those around you. You feel part of a “whole” learning community. But it doesn’t happen in every lesson, in part because we are not usually taught how to become “whole teachers” when we train. However, it is a goal that we all strive to reach. Consider this definition of the “whole teacher”:

“By your own act you teach the beholder how to do the practicable. According to the depth from which you draw your life, such is the depth not only of your strenuous effort, but of your manners and presence. The beautiful nature of the world has here blended your happiness with your power.” (Gilman, 1965, p. 437) (891)

There is no doubt that it feels wonderful to be more whole as a teacher. The more connection and care we feel for our students and colleagues, the more energized and joyful we feel about ourselves. There is also no doubt that this sense of wholeness has a positive effect. But the million-dollar question is: how can we make ourselves more “whole” as teachers?

Not being a person who thrives on airy-fairy descriptions or nebulous advice, I’d prefer to leave you with a simple list of questions! If you are interested, answer the questions for yourself. Then consider your “no” responses. How could you change yourself?

How “whole” are you as a teacher?

1. Do you forgive yourself if a class goes badly?

2. Do the majority of your lessons bring you a sense of joy?

3. Are you adaptable? If an activity goes well and you can see a way to continue with it, are you happy to run with the ball (even though it wasn’t on the lesson plan)? Equally, if an activity doesn’t go well, can you adapt it spontaneously/in real time?

4. Do you ever experiment with new ideas?

5. Are you able to let go of total control during your classes?

6. Do you “connect” with most of your students? Do you genuinely care for them?

7. Do you ever put yourself in your students’ shoes and reflect on how they feel?

8. Does an element of the “real you” come across in your lessons?

9. Do you feel a passion for teaching and for your subject? Does it show?

10. Do you take enough care of your health and happiness outside of class?





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Classroom Management – Kate

It Takes Two To Tango – Kate Cory-Wright

Kate Cory-Wright

Joyce Grenfell’s highly recommended “Nursery School” videos are an amusing insight into typical behavioral problems that take place all over the world. Two excerpts from her Going Home  and Free Activity Period

Teacher to Hazel and Dicky: Thank you Hazel for putting the chair straight for me. You’re a great help. And Dicky, thank you for closing the cupboard door for me. (Pause) Dicky, is there somebody in that cupboard?

Teacher to Susan: Susan! We NEVER bite our friend. Now say you’re sorry, Susan. No, you needn’t kiss him. No, you needn’t hug him. Susan, put Sidney DOWN!

While Grenfell’s classes are hilarious, the reality is not so funny. In a poorly controlled class, the best-laid lesson plans go wrong and your students learn little. Worse still, teacher exhaustion and demoralization usually follow mismanaged classes. On a bad day, we might sigh: “If they behaved better, I could teach actually them something!”

The number one question is: Do I really have a discipline problem? Dr. Andrew Littlejohn points out that: “Many ‘discipline problems’ are not problems at all – it is often the teacher’s reaction that makes it a problem.” Memories of myself as a young teacher make me smile now, but they didn’t at the time. Three teenage boys, who frequently “forgot” to bring their homework to class, drove me to despair. Years later I bumped into one of them, who apologized sincerely. His apology was enlightening: “I’m sorry for misbehaving, Sra. Katy. It’s just that we loved watching you get angry.”

Of course behavioral problems genuinely exist. Although they are commonly attributed to boredom or one student trying to attract attention, they often arise from a flawed relationship between students and teacher. Teenagers, in particular, need to feel that you are in charge. And young children are prone to pushing the limits, to see what is acceptable and what is not. One of my favorite scenes from the Grenfell videos concerns Hazel, who gets her finger stuck in the keyhole. As soon as Hazel frees her finger, Nevil decides to do the same, resulting in the need for a fire engine. Clearly, by calling Hazel “poor Hazel”, Grenfell unwittingly sends a message to the other kids that she will tolerate this action (and even provide sympathy!)

It’s very tempting to blame our students for behavioral problems. After a recent class with my young learners, I was dismayed to find the floor covered in orange juice (again). Initially I was annoyed with them, but the fact is, the juice incident was my fault, too. The rule was clear: we clear up together at the end of the class. However, by forgetting to ask the learners to clear up that day, I wasn’t consistent about my own rules. Consistency is paramount.

It is even more common for teachers to take responsibility for behavioral problems, but should they? Provided our rules are fair, rational, and clearly explained, then our students know what’s right and wrong. In such circumstances, Dr. Littlejohn advocates joint responsibility: “Approach the issue as their problem as well as yours”.  Discussions and classroom contracts are both effective ways to negotiate behavioral problems.

1. Discussions

A typical discussion might begin like this: “We have a problem. Our group work isn’t working, is it? What can we do about it?” Witha recurring behavioral problem, just one discussion might help you stop repeating yourself. Grenfell reminds us how this feels:

“Nevil, I said get up off the floor, please.”

“Hazel, dear. I don’t want to have to tell you again. Please come away from that door…”

“Sidney. Please take that paintbrush OUT of your ear”.

2. Classroom contracts

Classroom contracts come in many shapes and sizes, depending on the age and purpose, but they work the same way in principle. First, students and teachers brainstorm rules together. Next, after everyone has agreed, students make the contract and sign it (very young learners can put a thumbprint). Finally, place the contract in a visible spot. You can use posters, lists, spidergrams, Linoits, or even Wordles. Without doubt, contracts are more time-consuming than discussions. However, they significantly help reduce student-teacher tension. You are no longer nagging students to adhere to your rules, but rather to their rules!

Some practical notes:

1. How many rules should the contract include? Leslie Embleton, a teacher, once generated more than 30 rules during a brainstorming session with his 13-year-old students! He then reduced the list to ten key rules by negotiating with his students.

2. How long should the contract last? After a while, the contract loses its validity and novelty. So set an “end date”. After that, students can be asked to redefine the contract, focusing on areas that didn’t work well in the first contract.

3. What to do when students break the contract rules? If possible, hold a class discussion. Again, encourage student involvement and responsibility. Ask students: “You have broken rule x. What happened? What can we do about it?”

4. Should the teacher sign a contract? Some teachers fear they might lose control if their students ask them to complete a contract, too. Others see it as an ideal win-win scenario (“I promise to do X if you promise to do Y”).

As with all tailored solutions, only you know what works best in your situation. Good luck!


Grenfell, J.       Nursery School: Free activity period           (YouTube video)
Grenfell, J.       Nursery School: Going Home                       (YouTube video)
Littlejohn, A.   A-Z Discipline http://www.andrewlittlejohn.net/website/az/discipline.html
Littlejohn, A. and Breen, M. P.          The Significance of Negotiation    www.andrewlittlejohn.net/website/docs/

Wikihow website

Corner on Character



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