A Requirement, Not An Invitation: How To Engage Students


Have you ever googled “How to engage students?” out of desperation or curiosity?

I have….and what I found was a lot of quick tips and how-tos.  The problem is, I think that looking at engaging students comes from a deeper well than just trying some new techniques.  Let’s be real – – if it were about a simple technique, wouldn’t we ALL be doing it and reaping the benefits right now?

While I don’t have the silver, magic bullet for you (Sorry!), I do know what you need to do to engage your students – or engage them in a bigger way this school year.

The secret?  It’s all about you.  I know it, you wanted me to make it about the students, but it’s really not.

Here are 7-Quick-Steps for you to implement RIGHT NOW to engage students in a way that you haven’t before:

  1. Realize that engagement starts with expectation.  Treat students like they already ARE engaged…and they usually follow!
  2. Know that increasing student engagement is a habit.  Don’t give up – if you expect it and then reinforce, reinforce and reinforce, you WILL see improvement in engagement. Don’t give up!
  3. When you see low levels of engagement or general apathy to the lesson, check yourself first.  It might be that your energy isn’t very high or that you’re “phoning it in” without even knowing it!  There is POWER in “acting as if”…as if you are pumped!  As if you are ecstatic about the content!  Put your acting game face on!
  4. Engagement isn’t natural – If you are using a new engagement technique, realize that you must teach it, model it and tell students when they’re going to use it – and then practice, practice, practice before you expect it to be done.  Set kids up for success!
  5. Student engagement is built simultaneously on habitual use of engagement techniques AND keeping things interesting!  Find a balance between using techniques that students are confident in, but switching it up periodically so they don’t become stale and “phoned in”.  If you tune into your kids, you’ll know the exact point that you need to switch it up.
  6. Plan ahead for engagement.  While you might catch a break periodically with some bird-walking or “teachable moments”, 95% of your engagement should be planned for.  Ask yourself “Where do I need my kids to be super charged and into the content?”  And then work to teach them what it looks like to be engaged.
  7. Don’t assume that students know what engagement looks like and feels like.  I see that a lot of kids are struggling to engage because they don’t know what it is to be engaged!  If you’d unlock the secret for them, I bet they’d be raring to go.

Here’s what I know for sure: If you invite students to be engaged or more engaged, there’s a possibility that they won’t choose to join you!  BUT, if you structure your lessons so that they’re required to engage, you’re MUCH MORE LIKELY to see a big leap in engagement level.  It’s up to you!

What is the #1, Can’t-Live-Without Reading Strategy?

So, here you have it folks – after all this time, all this reading, all this study, all this data, all this research, I’m here to tell you what you’ve all been waiting for: the silver bullet, the answer of all answers!

What is the #1, Can’t-Live-Without Reading Strategy?  Stamina.

Huh?  That’s all you got for us, Jackson?  I can hear you saying that already!

Let me explain.

There are a lot of experts, programs and studies that will tell you that particular strategies trump all others and that if you would only teach this particular strategy, you’ll solve the world’s problems…or at least your students’ problems.

What I know after reading all those studies and working in thousands of classrooms in hundreds of schools is that the students who perform well on each and every task that calls them to comprehend text are those students who have the ability to ‘hang in there’ during reading.  Even when it’s difficult. 


So……..I bet you’re thinking…….how do I build stamina in my readers?  What reading strategy do I teach?  What reading strategies will get the best results?

I have 3 Easy-To-Implement Techniques for YOU

Technique #1:  Give kids lots of difficult text to work through

Students will learn to do difficult things by doing difficult things.  The cool by-product of doing difficult things?  Confidence! 

What does this look like in the classroom?  Lots of varied text – beef up your informational/expository text and daily teach and practice how to navigate the features of that informational text. It’s pretty common that kids get lots of practice with narrative text, so they tend to be better at navigating it.  So get them caught up by doubling up on text that informs and is factual. 

Don’t shy away from challenging your students with above grade level material.  Tell them, “This is going to be a challenge for us, but we are going to work through it together and the more we practice, the better we’ll get!”  Then do just that!

Technique #2:  Make sure you pre-talk the reading to give students ideas as to how to manage the text

Prior to reading through any text, walk-through with the students how you, as a reader, manage that text.  You might say things like, “Hmm…right here is where I KNOW I’ll have to reread because I see lots of bigger words that I’m unfamiliar with” or “Guys right away I know that I’m going to have to take notes through this part of the text because there’s lots going on and I don’t want to get confused, so I’ll set up my reading journal right now”. 

We empower kids by not teaching them a million strategies for reading, but teaching them a few powerful techniques that will span content areas and grade levels. 

SHOW THEM how you hang in there when you’re really confused in a piece of text – make it informal so that they can relate…don’t be robotic here!

Technique #3:  Reread text to find different information

This is a widely under-modeled reading strategy in the classrooms that I visit.  Think about how automatic it is for you to read something once and think to yourself, “Um, I have no idea what I just read!” or “Geesh, I need to read that paragraph, I was really distracted.”  We so automatically and unashamedly go back and reread and reread and reread until we better understand. 

The cool thing about rereading is that it also builds fluency!  So, we’re getting better at decoding swiftly while we’re actually becoming better comprehenders.  That’s so cool!

The bottom line?  Stamina (or the ability to hang in there when the going gets rough) is a skill that should be taught and PRACTICED, PRACTICED, PRACTICED.

My question to you is, are you shying away from difficult text or text that requires high comprehension because you don’t want your students to struggle too much?  Do you get frustrated when they struggle a bit through text, so you change the task or text for them?

If so, consider at least 1 time per week that you will present some tricky reading or a challenging passage to your kids and then HELP THEM THROUGH IT.

Not only will the stamina be solidified, but you’ll have a bunch of confident readers on your hands.

And that’s an awesome thing in a reading strategy!

Breaking Through Two Myths About Reading with Fluency

Side note: I’ll explain the robots at the end of the post, so stay tuned…or read ahead like I usually do!

So I’m here to tell you that reading with fluency has gotten a bad rap.  I hear lots of talk about “reading fast” and “reading fast enough” when that’s really not what it’s all about at all! 

Here’s the real scoop – and I hope it’ll change your mind a bit about why reading with fluency is so critical to develop with EVERY student. Yes, middle school and high school teachers that means you, too!

Myth #1:  Good and strong readers don’t need fluency instruction or practice

Actually, EVERYONE needs good fluency practice and instruction! In fact, the research on learning to read at any age tells us over and over again that without fluency of skill, we struggle to put it all together for the toughest and most demanding part of reading: comprehension. 

Think about it this way – when you’re making a new recipe for the first time, it takes longer to make it because after each ingredient, you’re looking at the recipe and checking and re-checking your next step.

Once you’ve made the recipe several times, your prep time and “doing” time probably lessens – in essence, you have become fluent with that recipe.  It’s at this point in making that dish that you think, “Hmmm…I wonder if I added a bit of this or that if that would make the dish better”.  You have time and the wherewithal with the fluent recipe-making to become fancier or to handle the complexities because you have the basics down. 

That’s how fluency works in reading too!  The more efficient you are with the foundational and basic parts of reading (phonemic awareness, phonics, decoding, multi-syllabic words), the more brain power you have available for comprehension.

And ALL students could use more brain power when it comes to comprehension because they will continue to be challenged by text – especially in content area classes!

Myth #2:  Fluency in reading is only for young kids

You know, reading with prosody (reading the way you’d speak the same text) is an indicator of comprehension – and it’s necessary for comprehension.

When I think about learning to speak Spanish (which I was “fluent” with for about 4 minutes one day in college, but that’s another story for another day!), I could “decode” or blend through the words really well.  In fact my college professor complimented me on it!  (It was a highlight for me, considering I went on to get an ‘F’ in that class…yet ANOTHER story for another blog!)

But, when it came down to actually having a conversation and really stringing multiple words together to form a proper Spanish sentence, I fell flat.  I had the individual word decoding thing down, but fluent reading and speaking that led to me actually understanding what was said or read?  Not gonna happen.

I was 19 years old, dysfluent and failing.  (But having a fun time doing it!)

I needed practice in linking the sounding out of the words to connecting to the meaning of words.  In fact, if you heard me speak in Spanish you would realize that each word had the same emphasis, the same tone and the same speed.  It made no sense!

The same is true for ALL students – reading with fluency is a skill.  And as the text gets more difficult, even on-benchmark readers could use some solid, meaningful practice in reading with fluency.

Because that’s the thing: the text gets difficult and the students’ skills have to be tough enough, strong enough and mastered enough that they remain strong even under tough circumstances. 

So, why the pictures of the robots at the top of the blog?  Well, I want you to DISENGAGE THE ROBOT.  Huh?  When you are constructing another opportunity to teach or provide guided practice on reading with fluency, I want you to give PURPOSE for the practice.

For example, you might tell your class, “Folks, I’m not listening into your reading right now and hoping that I’ll hear reading like you’re hooked into an electrical socket – I want to hear real readers, reading with feeling, reading like you speak it.  Here we go…”

It’s our job to make the work in classrooms meaningful and not robotic.  Robotic practice means that it’s meaningless and that kids are probably going through the motions.  GOING THROUGH THE MOTIONS LEADS TO RAPID FORGETTING.  Or “fake remembering”, as I like to call it.

I often say (and tweet!) that “Anything worth doing in schools is worth doing well” and that extends to reading with fluency and teaching kids fluency in reading. 

So, where to start?  Examine your fluency practices by asking yourself this: if I were a fly on the wall during fluency instruction or practice, would I see robotic, mindless practice or would I see meaningful, comprehension-building work being done?

Leave your thoughts below…I love to read ’em and I promise I will respond right back!

What Are Reading Strategies and Why Are They So Important for All Kids?

I remember when I first started teaching I fantasized that I would have a gaggle of kids sitting at my feet while I read books aloud to them and we would marvel at the literature (of Kindergarten???) and have deep conversations about the meaning of the literature and connect the text to the world and basically just live out every English teacher’s fantasy (or at least THIS English minor’s teaching fantasy!)

And then my students showed up.

And I cried.

And my mom had to come and help me.

Like moms do.

And then I pulled it together!

So what do I mean by “pulled it together”?

I got real about what my students needed and what I would have to do to provide it to them.  Gone were the sitting at the teacher’s feet for hours on end, discussing the deeper meaning of Goodnight Moon and onto really teaching these kids WHAT good readers do and HOW to do what good readers do.

I came to understand much more clearly what reading strategies are for and why I needed to start teaching them – especially in Kindergarten!

So, here’s what I’ve learned and incorporated into my practices in Kindergarten and upper elementary, middle school and high school classrooms – these are ideas that work in REAL LIFE classrooms!

  1. Reading strategies (like compare and contrast, prediction and inference, summarizing, etc.) are solely for the purpose of boosting comprehension of the text.
  2. Reading strategies are super important to teach because by teaching them we show students how good readers think.  This is so important because learning to read is NOT a natural process.  If it were, we wouldn’t have such high illiteracy rates!
  3. Reading strategies need to be modeled, modeled, modeled to kids of all ages before they become automatic.  Just like you wouldn’t give a car to a 15 year old learning to drive, you don’t hand over comprehension of text to students without lots of hand holding!
  4. Reading strategies are a process, not a check on a checklist.  Prior to reading ANY text, you should model and think aloud for students how you, as a successful reader, approach and attack the text.  Things like “Hmm…this has me thinking that I’m a little confused, let me use my reading comprehension strategy of re-reading to see if I can make more sense of this.” Think-alouds like this give kids permission to ask questions about the text.
  5. Reading strategies give kids TOOLS to figure out difficult text – this is the whole point!  Teaching reading comprehension shouldn’t been a shot in the dark – we need to ARM kids with the big guns (proven reading comprehension strategies) to be able to take on new text with lots of new vocabulary and lots of new content knowledge. 
  6. Reading strategies give kids confidence.  Have you ever seen a strong, confident reader cower at the thought of difficult text?  Probably not!  They go rip-roarin’ into the text because they’re thinking, “I’ve got this!” – and what you see is them regularly and appropriately applying reading comprehension strategies!

So, what are reading strategies?

Reading strategies are flexible tools designed to help facilitate text comprehension.

And why are they so important for all kids?

Reading strategies are critical to develop in order to boost comprehension, confidence and clarity while reading text.

So, where do you start with all of this?  Start by reflecting on your lessons from last year – did you make assumptions that kids already knew/had the reading strategies?  Were there multiple opportunities each day in different kinds of text where you modeled the strategies?  Where do you see obvious opportunities to model next year?

Now, I’ve got to go and get back to prepping my Proust lesson for my kindergarten demo tomorrow.  *wink wink*