How to Reach the Dormant Readers

Can Books Compete with VR?

Dormant vs. Reluctant Readers

As with most things Donalyn Miller (a.k.a. The Book Whisperer) writes, I wish I had thought of it. Donalyn Miller prefers the term “dormant” to “reluctant” when discussing kids who don’t or won’t read. “Dormant” reminds me of volcanoes, and that’s helpful, too, because we want that fire to ignite in our students who “hate reading.” I joke with my students and make a stabbing clutch at my heart when they tell me they “hate to read.” It actually hurts.

The “Haters” 

How did they become that way? Some children come from homes with no books and no models for reading, homes in which the TV is on constantly instead. Some children were never read to when they were young, so they don’t have positive associative memories. Some children struggle with reading, and what’s hard is not immediately pleasurable, and so “hating to read” is their cool excuse for not being able to do it well. Some are too distracted by social media, YouTubers, sports, activities, homework to find the time to choose to lose themselves in a book. Sadly, in certain subgroups, school is not cool, and by association, that means reading.

Remember: it’s their space!

The Reader’s Advisory from Hell

It goes something like this, and yes, I’ll use Johnny because it’s more often Johnny than Susie.

Me: “Johnny, what are you reading now?”

Johnny: “Nothing. I hate reading.”

Me: “What are you interested in?”

Johnny: “Nothing.”

Me: “Do you like sports? Let me show you these sports books.”

Johnny: “No.”

Me: “What about funny books? Scary books?

Johnny: “No.”

Me: “Well, what are you interested in?”

Johnny: “Nothing.”

Me: “Oh, so what do you do in your free time?”

Johnny: “I don’t know. Hang out, I guess.”

Me: “What about graphic novels? Have you tried reading comics? Or what about an audio book?”

You can see where this is going, right?

Love those graphic novels!


1) Variety in library collections. The best way to reach Johnnys is to have a variety of genres as well as reading and interest levels and formats. That way, we can lead our dormant readers to trying out a book that might “fit.” Of course, this directly addresses the issue of funding because only with adequate resources can we develop diverse collections.

2) Full-frontal book displays. Books that are displayed on book stands in my library circulate at much higher rates than books that are shelved with only their spines showing. Of course, I err on the side of clutter, but I try to display books on every conceivable flat surface. We also ask students to write short recommendation cards to stick in the books for peer advertising. Although this is decidedly low-tech (we have many student reviews on the library website), when students browse, they really notice peer recommendation cards. And although we don’t shelve our books by genre, we do have display shelves for different genres, especially sports fiction, dystopias, and romance.

Full-frontal displays

3) Be trendy. Of course, this can be tricky. It seems that as soon as adults catch on to a slang term or trend, it’s either over or on its way out, but I depend on student recommendations and requests. Among my favorite tasks is delivering a book to a child who special-ordered it. Several years ago I had students recommending books by YouTubers. I’d never heard of Tyler Oakley or Zoe Sugg (she’s a has-been already), Miranda Sings, but certain students snatched their books up ravenously. It’s as if I’d set out a bowl of candy. What’s in my next book order? Are their books of fidget spinner tricks yet? Yep. I just checked. Again, prepare to weed these books soon. For instance, in my library Justin Bieber’s biography is completely shunned. Still, my attitude is to catch them at the moment. It’s why I purchase too many copies of popular books, especially those made into movies. Will their popularity soon wane? Certainly, but in the meantime, I’m catching a wave.

Meeting Kwame Alexander with fellow English teachers

4) Don’t go it alone. Most importantly, it is impossible for you, one school librarian, to do it all. You can’t single-handedly change a school culture. It is imperative that you collaborate directly with your English Language Arts teachers. In fact, the entire school community needs to buy into the three keys presented in Stephen Krashen’s The Power of Reading: 1) self-selection or choice 2) time to read 3) access to the books they WANT to read.

To get this buy-in is a constant effort. It’s too easy to throw up our hands and complain that teachers don’t allow their students to visit the library often. One teacher, who used to send her students to the library regularly during class time, suddenly stopped this past year. She said that students leaving the room and coming back in were too disruptive while she was doing her one-on-one reading interviews. Solution: next year we’re developing an online spreadsheet so that I can record the reading interviews I conduct with her students. Now, rather than her feeling stressed for time, I’ll be halving her work load. As they say: whatever it takes because, “If children develop a love of reading, they will have better lives.” — Rafe Esquith

Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire


Author: Sara Stevenson

I’m a reader, writer, swimmer, and a public middle school librarian. I love all things Italian. I was honored to be Austin ISD’s first librarian of the year in 2013.

Categories: Blog Topics, Collection Development, Community/Teacher Collaboration

2 replies

  1. Great read. Thankful you continue to serve so many with your passion for finding the right fit book for every middle schooler.

  2. Great piece, with many helpful tips and ideas from your hard-won experience! Thanks for sharing.

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