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Practice Perspectives

The Case of the Reluctant Reader: Insights from Three Professionals

Jane N. Erin

Print edition page number(s) 69-77

Many of us have enjoyed the mystique of Sherlock Holmes, either through literature, radio, or television. The taciturn, pipe-smoking detective was remarkable in his ability to notice minor details that he connected to arrive at the solution to a crime. He was astute at retaining details of a crime scene, such as a sealskin tobacco pouch, dirty knees on someone's trousers, or cow tracks. From these details, he reconstructed events that were usually overlooked by others.

Like Sherlock Holmes, teaching professionals spend their careers uncovering the mysteries of events and people. Only an instructor who works with a student regularly over time can accumulate the clues that lead to long-term solutions to instructional problems. The mystery can be especially complex when learners avoid reading and do not approach the task with a system that will make them successful. While many visually impaired people are eager to unlock the puzzles of the brailled or printed word, others find ways to circumvent print or braille and rely mainly on the spoken word. The reading process is influenced by many elements, including experience, environment, perception, memory, reasoning, and verbal abilities. Like Sherlock Holmes, the successful teacher must integrate varied pieces of information to answer the essential questions.

Clues to the mystery of motivating readers can be found in recent studies of reading instruction that works. The importance of student participation in improving interest in reading was evident in a study by Patillo, Heller, and Smith (2004). The authors reported how five students in the first author's resource room worked to improve their reading speed, accuracy, and comprehension through the use of a repeated reading process using optical character recognition software. Four out of five students improved in some aspects of reading, and they also expressed more positive attitudes about reading as they made progress. One powerful feature of the students' improvement may have been their participation in the research; each student set a criterion for each reading session, and all were aware of their progress during the interventions. Learners who plan their own learning and monitor their own progress are usually more motivated to succeed.

Similar changes were evident for a student whose spelling improved through computer instruction (Mioduser, Lahav, & Machmias, 2000). As the student improved in her ability to operate the instructional program, she wanted to do additional work to increase her progress. Motivation impels a learner to continue a difficult task, and mastering the task results in an increased drive to improve. In essence, motivation increases performance, which in turn increases motivation.

When reading the articles in this first Practice Perspectives column, think of yourself as a detective who is trying to solve "The Case of the Reluctant Reader." Three authors who are experienced in working with visually impaired children or adults to improve reading will provide clues to your quest as they describe the strategies that have sparked the interest of their students. Lisa Kay Serino of Tucson, Arizona, Charla Rose Houston of Charlotte, North Carolina, and Trina R. Britcher of Huntington, West Virginia have contributed their creative experiences to this first Practice Perspectives column. We hope they will help you to solve the mystery of how to involve your own reluctant readers in the pleasures of the written word!


Mioduser, D., Lahav, O., and Machmias, R. (2000). Using computers to teach remedial spelling to a student with low vision: A case study. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 94, 5-16.

Patillo, S., Heller, K., & Smith, M. (2004). The impact of a modified repeated-reading strategy paired with optical character recognition on the reading rates of students with visual impairments, Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 98, 28-46.

Jane N. Erin, Ph.D.
Practice Editor

Editor's note: Readers unfamiliar with the science of reading instruction are encouraged to refer to the following books for definitions of the terms used in this Practice Perspectives column: Reading and Learning to Read, 7th Edition, by Vacca, Vacca, Gove, Burkey, Lenhart, and McKeon (published 2009 by Allyn & Bacon); and Reading Process and Practice, 2nd Edition, by Weaver (published 2002 by Heinemann).

Creating an Environment for Success

Lisa Kay Serino

Reading instruction is one of the most challenging and rewarding responsibilities of teachers of students with visual impairments. Finding strategies that motivate readers is a challenge, but the spark of inspiration for struggling readers often comes from a classroom environment that provides opportunities for success. After an environment of literacy has been established, the students are given the freedom to see themselves as successful readers rather than failures. Within such an environment, strategies are as varied as the individual students with which we work. Joe, Charlie, and Cathy have all been students of mine over the years. They would all be classified as struggling readers, but they were as unique in their reading abilities as they were unique as children. All three students were congenitally blind, learned braille as their first and only reading medium, and attended a specialized school for children with visual impairments.

Joe came into my fifth-grade class with no interest in books and very little desire to read anything. He occasionally made slightly negative comments about reading activities. Joe told me that when he was younger, he would just pretend to read during reading time. After reading his educational history and talking with his previous teacher, I knew I would be working with a child who had been diagnosed with a reading disability, had labored over reading for years, and had worked hard to learn reading strategies, but often couldn't remember them the next day. When he did read, it was slow and laborious: He "sounded out" each word on the page. Instead of facing failure, Joe needed to find success.

A typical day for Joe began with a sustained silent reading activity in which students were allowed to read from an extensive library of books at varying levels: children's magazines, comic books, and language-experience approach books. At the beginning of the year, Joe thought of these silent reading activities as reading time and reluctantly picked books that he thought he should be reading. After I explained that this was a time to read anything he wanted, Joe happily participated in choosing magazines, comic books, and library books. He became very interested in a series of books about the history of the Spiderman and Superman comic books that he explored with another boy in the class.

During reading lessons, Joe was allowed to choose the books he wanted to read. At first he chose very easy books to read that were at his independent reading level. Gradually, I encouraged him to read more challenging books and introduced various reader-response activities. In addition, I incorporated a variety of other reading activities throughout the day. Each afternoon, I read a book aloud for the class, which provided an opportunity to initiate literature discussions and to model a variety of other strategies the students could use while reading independently. We wrote several language-experience approach books together in which the students dictated the text based on class activities. We also created a class memory book from daily guided writing activities. In August, Joe flatly stated: "I hate to read." By the end of the year, he was happily and willingly choosing short chapter books to read. Although Joe will always have to cope with a reading disability, he began the transformation from being a reluctant reader to a young boy who is enthusiastic about reading.

In contrast, Charlie began to see himself as a successful reader using very different strategies. There was almost no educational history available for Charlie, but it quickly became apparent that he had not met with success in his previous public schools. When Charlie entered my third-grade class halfway through the school year, he was only able to name the letters of the alphabet and write his name. In addition, it was obvious that Charlie would need to make the transition from print to braille in order to be a proficient and efficient reader in the future. Although Charlie was exposed to the same reading environment as Joe, Charlie responded positively to systematic phonics instruction. He was quickly able to read simple words and a page of controlled text. The look of accomplishment on Charlie's face was all the evidence needed that Charlie now saw himself as a reader. Charlie quickly moved from reading controlled text to reading children's literature. Even though he was making steady progress, he still struggled with fluency. A variety of activities were provided in the classroom to increase fluency, including buddy reading (reading aloud to a younger student), reader's theater (a form of oral reading in which students present scripts aloud), and poetry club, but true to Charlie's character, he preferred timed repeated readings. We would select a paragraph to practice from the book that he was reading. He would read the paragraph two or three times while I timed each reading. Charlie also kept a chart of his improving fluency, which helped to keep that spark of enthusiasm burning. In just a few months, Charlie had made an amazing transformation from naming letters to reading books.

Cathy might have been the most challenging student in middle school, but she was also one of my favorite students. Everything about Cathy exuded "teenager," and I loved it. She read, but she didn't want to. She participated in reader-response activities and literature discussions, but she didn't want to. She would pick the easiest picture books to read and wait to see what I would do. She complained that she didn't like any books and reading was boring. My first discovery about Cathy was that even though she had that typical teenager self-consciousness, she also loved to be dramatic. In December, I introduced a reader's theater play to my eighth-grade class. That was all it took; she was hooked. We practiced the play every day for almost two weeks. She was enthusiastic; she laughed and was eager to practice the play each day. She also encouraged and helped the other students to read with expression. The next discovery about Cathy came as an accident. Once again, Cathy was complaining that reading was boring as I was helping her to pick a new book to read. I would suggest a book and Cathy would reject it. This was a favorite pastime for Cathy. I suggested Little Women and told her a little bit about the book. She came into class each day and asked, "Can we just read today?" When a half hour had elapsed, I would ask the students if they were ready to stop reading and Cathy would beg to keep reading. Even though this change in attitude toward reading appeared to be an accident with Cathy, I have seen similar reading breakthroughs in several other students. When a student finds one book that changes his or her view of reading, he or she suddenly sees that reading is not a chore but a door into a new world. With Cathy, the trigger was Little Women; other students have been motivated by the Henry and Mudge books or The Indian in the Cupboard. Cathy might not have been a traditional struggling reader, but she was struggling to enjoy reading. By providing her with an extensive variety of books, allowing her to select the books she wanted to read, and creating an exciting reading environment, she was free to find the fun in reading again.

Cathy, Charlie, and Joe entered my classroom with unique abilities and challenges. The challenge for teachers of children with visual impairments is to create an environment that allows students the freedom to be successful. What lights the flame of enthusiasm? Only your students can tell you.

Lisa Kay Serino, Ph.D., teacher of students with visual impairments, Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and Blind, 1200 West Speedway, Tucson, AZ 85745; e-mail: < >.

Teaching a Reluctant Adult Reader: A Case Study

Charla Rose Houston

We 21st-century vision rehabilitation therapists can trace our roots in the United States back to the early 20th-century pioneer "home teachers" who "… instructed homebound blind adults in one or more finger-reading systems … and in methods of coping with the demands of daily living" (Koestler, 2004). Although braille and technology have enhanced the range and scope of accessible reading-and-writing systems during the past 100 years, itinerant vision rehabilitation therapists are continually challenged with the mission established by our predecessors to provide therapeutically oriented instruction as a means through which adult clients develop methods to cope successfully with the demands on daily living imposed by their unique vision loss, learning challenges, and lifestyle needs.

Since the ongoing process of adjusting to vision loss naturally has an impact on learning for our adult clients, and vice versa, vision rehabilitation therapists need to determine how to assess and address therapeutically the degree to which issues related to vision loss might be affecting reluctant readers. Although there is no single formula that applies to every reader, the following case may offer a few factors for vision rehabilitation therapists to consider in similar situations.

Elayne, a recently retired 60-year-old human service professional and self-professed assistive technology "geek," engaged in an intensely defiant and unsuccessful struggle in making the transition from using ZoomText screen magnification software to the JAWS for Windows screen reader for reading, word processing, e-mail, and web navigation. Although Elayne was capable, self-motivated, and resilient, and had enthusiastically requested JAWS instruction, she was not benefiting from the supplemental, multisensory teaching approaches and tools I had devised for her. Finally, her increasingly defensive and argumentative behavior during lessons became a time-consuming diversion that sabotaged the learning process, making it impossible for me to continue instruction with her.

Both Elayne and I knew she had reached a defining moment in her personal rehabilitation program. We needed to determine whether or not her ambitious goals for learning communications skills were still realistic and, if they were not, how her goals should be modified according to her abilities. In response to our mutual concerns, I talked with Elayne about how we might functionally apply the following premise as a means to identify and respond to factors that had the potential to block her progress: "Ability is what you're capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it" (Holtz, n.d.).

Because Elayne trusted that our mutual intention was to do everything we could to help her succeed, I arranged a meeting with her so we could discuss her progress, during which we respectfully, thoroughly, and candidly discussed all the following considerations to determine if some of them could be contributing to Elayne's frustrating lack of progress and incomplete homework assignments:

  • Ability (Did Elayne have an undiagnosed auditory processing or memory challenge or both?)
  • Motivation (Was Elayne devoting sufficient time and effort to study or practice in spite of her fears of failure?)
  • Attitude (Since Elayne was embarrassed to admit that she was confused and needed additional help during and between lessons, would she be able to commit to the rigorous effort required to develop meticulous aural and keyboard navigation skills?)

We agreed that motivation was a realistic factor to measure because we could create a quantifiable structure to measure the content, quality, and rates of training; homework performance; and learning progress. To ensure that the functional teaching strategies and rehabilitation goals would be continually responsive to her learning ability, motivation, and attitude, together we formally incorporated and documented Elayne's new responsibilities in the Statement of Method section of her Rehabilitation Teaching Individualized Written Service Plan, effectively committing Elayne and me to the process of measuring her progress and identifying the causes of her learning challenges.

Although at the end of each lesson we had been jointly listing Elayne's homework in a Homework Study Notes and Instructions word-processing document, Elayne had been misinterpreting her homework. She agreed to slow down and be more intentional when doing the homework assignments by reading, studying, and practicing each Homework Study Note one at a time before applying the respective homework task and to e-mail or telephone me for help. To alleviate the homework struggles and fears Elayne revealed during the progress consultation, she began a daily Homework Journal word-processing document in which she recorded the date and time she started the homework assignment, a brief list of skills practiced, significant comments and questions, and the date and time on which she completed her homework.

Unaccustomed to keeping any type of personal daily journal, Elayne noted that it took about a week for her to become comfortable making daily Homework Journal entries. After two weeks, she noted a shift in her learning style, and she wrote in her journal that with this new structure in the learning process, she was improving her time-management skills. She noticed that intentionally scheduling her day around her homework (instead of trying to "fit it in") gave her a greater sense of accomplishment. Within a month, she was reporting a higher percentage of successful homework tasks with fewer struggles and she enjoyed her new writing voice through which she thoughtfully resolved many homework challenges instead of giving up or e-mailing me for help. Spontaneously "shouting" her frustrations in ALL CAPS also served as a stress reliever that led her to "ah-ha" moments of clarity.

Jointly reviewing her Homework Journal entries at the beginning of every lesson greatly enhanced our rapport. In her journal, Elayne permitted herself to therapeutically address her issues relating to adjustment to vision loss. Since she had been gradually losing vision for years, Elayne was surprised to discover through her journal writing how strongly she resented the fact that she could no longer read large print. She realized that the more she embraced learning through writing in her Homework Journal, the more she gradually perceived, grieved, and accepted the realities of her recent deterioration in vision.

After rereading the first three months of Homework Journal entries, Elayne was surprised to see how much progress she had made, and she appreciated having this learning history in her own words. Realizing that keeping a journal was an appropriate method for learning, this recovering reluctant reader chose to resurrect and expand her previously acquired but unused contracted braille skills and to keep a journal of her braille notetaking, labeling, and reading progress. At the end of four months, Elayne successfully completed her rehabilitation goals and her journal entries included joyful reflections about how the rehabilitative process empowered her to therapeutically embrace her blindness, recognize and release her fears of failure, and gain the confidence and work ethic to develop and successfully apply her new adaptive skills in her daily life.

In summary, the process described here provided a measurable, therapeutic, home-based framework for teamwork between a client and the vision rehabilitation teacher through which a reluctant reader uncovered, confronted, and resolved her unique, adaptive learning, and vision loss issues that were affecting her motivation and attitude. It also confirmed that auditory processing and memory abilities were not contributing factors to this individual's temporary status as a reluctant reader.


Holtz, L. (n.d.). Lou Holtz quotes. Retrieved January 27, 2009, from

Koestler, F. A. (2004). The three-wheeled cart. In F. A. Koestler, The unseen minority: A social history of blindness in the United States (pp. 320-321). New York: AFB Press.

Charla Rose Houston, M.A., certified vision rehabilitation therapist.

Motivation Through Preferred Activities

Trina R. Britcher

Unlike many adults, I don't have memories of one perfect teacher. Instead, I remember special moments with many teachers. I can vividly remember my band director glowing with pride following a field show and my fourth-grade teacher beaming as we recited the Preamble to the Constitution. As a public school teacher myself, I have now shared such feelings with my students. When I see eight little fingers glide smoothly over a line of braille dots, I feel like I have crossed over the rainbow and fallen into the pot of gold! But sometimes glory is paired with defeat. What can a teacher do with a child who just isn't getting it, who, despite my enthusiasm, dreads "braille time"? What can a teacher do with a child for whom reading is a chore?

Although some people might expect a reluctant reader to be a low-achieving student, I have found that some of my lowest-functioning students are the most excited to read. Many students feel a great sense of accomplishment when they can read a book or other materials at their ability level. Reluctant readers resist braille whether they are reading dual media (both print and braille) or beginning with braille alone; they tend to prefer any activity to reading. My job is to find the key that will unlock their curiosity.

The first step is discovering how to motivate these students. Although motivation is very individual, some approaches span a variety of students' interests. The ideas presented here are not a "reading curriculum," but rather strategies that may spark students' interests in reading.

Interest inventory

When I begin working with a student, I always start with an interest inventory (see Box 1). This questionnaire provides valuable information for students of all ages on which I found my instruction and reinforcements. The inventory also gives me a sense of the student's attitude in a variety of situations. The number of questions in the questionnaire is less than fifteen, so the student isn't overwhelmed. When planning lessons that motivate students to read, teachers need to be careful to avoid asking students to read what they don't want or like. Teachers must identify what subjects or types of materials students would be interested in reading.


The following are some of my favorite reading motivators that can be used at the primary level (elementary school), intermediate level (middle school or junior high school), and secondary level (high school and beyond).

Primary level.

I consulted the students on my caseload who are blind or have low vision regarding their favorite reading motivators. Without a doubt, games that could be played with their peers were their favorite. My students like to play modified games with their peers and participate fully with the class. Some favorite games are:

  • Using braille playing cards in math class to play War (greater than and less than, ordering numbers) and to learn multiplication facts (if you turn over a 3 and I turn over a 4, the answer is 12).
  • Throwing a multicolored beach ball with reading comprehension questions located on each section, in braille and print, around the room. When a student with visual impairment catches the ball, he or she reads and answers the comprehension questions just like everyone else in the class.
  • Using a variety of braille bingo games to focus on whatever the class is learning.

Teacher- and student-made multisensory books are favorite motivators for many students. Scented stickers, cinnamon sticks, peppermint flavoring, and other scented items can be used to build the content of the book along with information from the student's Interest Inventory. Electronic sound chips can also be used to record messages in the books. These multisensory books provide two important elements for encouraging reluctant readers: interest and motivation. The following are some suggestions for multisensory books:

  • Experience books, which relate to the experiences of a specific individual by using the communication methods, content, and materials most easily understood by that individual (Rafalowski Welch, 2008). A variety of real-life materials, such as cupcake holders and candles for a birthday book, or french fry bags and straws from a trip to McDonald's, can be integrated into the books (Rafalowski Welch, 2008).
  • Bookmaking with children is one of the most satisfying literacy experiences an adult can share with a child. Anna Swenson (1999), in her book Beginning with Braille, outlines a number of motivating and creative ideas for creating concept books. Her strategies have provided motivations for many of my reluctant readers.
  • Holiday books are fun and can also be used as a tool to focus on a concept or word with which a student is struggling. One of my primary students consistently missed the letter "w." He and I created a pumpkin-shaped book in braille. Each page began with the words, "I will…." After writing, reading, and rereading the book, he now rarely misses the word will or the letter "w."
  • File folder game workbooks, found at most teacher supply stores, can be used to develop a basket of braille games based on the needs of your students. Although students enjoy these activities, they are effective teaching tools because the games allow students to work independently and use both hands to manipulate the pieces to put them in the pockets or line up the Velcro. Such games can be designed to target a particular component of literacy that may need some reinforcement--beginning phonemes, for example.


Televison shows and video games rank high on the Interest Inventory lists of most middle-school students. Using the interest inventory as a guide, I research and learn about the shows my students like, then I create a trivia game modeled after the television game show Jeopardy! or some other type of modified game that requires them to read.

Many middle-school students feel overwhelmed by the amount of work they face. For this reason, I develop ways to integrate reading braille with other reading technologies to lessen these feelings. For instance, I may braille a list of questions on science related to a chapter of an audiobook from Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D). This task is intended to give the student practice in both braille and auditory media and alleviates the feeling of being overwhelmed with reading.


By the time a student is in high school, assignments need to be practical and functional. Because it is important for high school students to see a reason for what they are asked to do, creating activities that require students to simply practice reading, typing, keystrokes, or other skills not recommended. The following assignments are intended to serve a purpose, which may motivate students to want to do them.

For the transition file box activity, students use a recipe box to file cards they have brailled with contact information for resources that may be important for their future, including RFB&D, disability services centers at the colleges they may attend, individuals at the high school, customer service for the catalogs and companies from which they like to order, rehabilitation counselors, and banking information.

The task of learning how to braille notecards to use for classroom or public speaking presentations is one I devised after seeing a person with low vision speak at a conference using printed notecards. Periodically, the speaker held the cards to his eyes to review whatever he wished to say, then lowered the cards to speak. The speaker's delivery was a bit choppy and awkward as he struggled to read his cards. After his presentation, the late Betsy Zaborowski spoke. Her notecards were written in braille. Dr. Zaborowski moved around the stage holding the cards in one hand, gliding her fingers quickly across the braille, never skipping a beat. Regardless of their level of visual impairment, I insist all my students learn to braille notecards to ensure they deliver fluid speeches.

Brailling books for younger students, a task students enjoy, is a great way to encourage braille literacy. As part of this task, students proofread their own work, which reinforces their braille reading skills.

The components of literacy need to be taught within the framework of the program the teacher chooses to implement. Purpose, interest, and motivation often go hand in hand in reading instruction. It's reasonable to assume that a student needs to find a purpose in braille reading in order to be both interested and motivated in the task. For reluctant braille readers, finding the "trigger" that motivates and inspires them to read is key so they will find value and pleasure in reading and will want to go back to the bookshelf again and again.


Rafalowski Welch, T. (2008). Communication strategies. Unpublished Power Point presentation.

Swenson, A. M. (1999). Beginning with braille: Firsthand experiences with a balanced approach to literacy. New York: AFB Press.

Trina R. Britcher, M.A., teacher of students with visual impairments, Harrison County Schools, P.O. Box 1370, Clarksburg, WV 26301; e-mail: < >.

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