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In many classrooms across the country, a trend is becoming more apparent each year, much to the chagrin of educators and literacy leaders: reluctant readers are struggling to be engaged in literacy activities (Marinak, 2013). For many reluctant readers, reading aloud is not only a difficult task, but can cause social anxiety, distress, and extreme stress (Lesaux, Harris, & Sloane, 2012; Nielen, Mol, Sikkema-de Jong, & Bus, 2016; Sarroub & Pernicek, 2016; Smith & Wilhelm, 2004). While educators may struggle to engage and motivate reluctant readers, recognition of student's attitudes and feelings towards reading is an important factor that must be considered (Fisher & Frey, 2012; Marinak, 2013). Negative attitudes impact performance, and as such, educators must begin to understand student's potentially negative attitudes and reluctance to read (De Koning & van der Schoot, 2013; Morris, 2015; Wilhelm, 2016).

Educators may be grappling with numerous issues in addition to student's negative beliefs that reading is not important (De Koning & van der Schoot, 2013; Dempsey, 2015; Sarroub & Pernicek, 2016). Within the frenzy of standardized assessments and accountability, digital literacies have become more prevalent in classrooms (Chen, 2017; Hannaford & Beavis, 2018). As students are more exposed to digital texts, they are interacting less with traditional text, compounding the problem regarding traditional reading for reluctant readers (Gunter, 2013; Price-Dennis, Holmes, & Smith, 2015).

As students progress through the elementary grades, the shift from learning to read--to reading to learn compounds the issues regarding students' motivation and self-perception (Marinak, 2013; Ng, Bartlett, Chester, & Kersland, 2013; Pajares, Johnson, & Usher, 2007). Self-perception can play a significant role in impacting student's willingness and attitude (Chai, 2010; Chai 2014; Hawthorne, 2008; Mason, Meadan, Hedin, & Cramer, 2012). Students with more reading confidence and self-efficacy are more likely to read more, while students who struggle with self-efficacy tend to read less (Marinak, 2013). Motivating students who are reluctant readers is not a one-sided dilemma, but rather a dynamic problem with many facets that needs to be addressed.

Expectancy-Value theory implies that a skill is unlikely to be utilized if no value is perceived (Gunter, 2012). Nielen et al.'s (2016) study found that a history of negative reading experiences impacted the willingness to read. While many educators may try to encourage reading by using extrinsic rewards, a lack of intrinsic motivation can cause a bigger issue to occur, i.e., a stronger dislike towards and disengagement with reading. Research has shown that extrinsic rewards are ineffective regarding motivation (Marinak, 2013). While extrinsic motivation might be a way to initially capture students' interest, in the long term, it is not long lasting, nor self-sustaining, and does not inspire intrinsic motivation (Boscolo & Gelati, 2008; Marinak, 2013; Mason et al., 2012; Miranda, Williams-Rosi, Johnson, & McKenzie, 2011; Ng et al., 2013; Pajares et al., 2007; Sarroub & Pernicek, 2016). Expectancy-Value theory provides some perspective regarding student motivation from a value standpoint (Gunter, 2012; Henk & Melnick, 1995; Marinak, 2013). Students who struggle to internalize the value of reading and remain engaged readers need to explicitly be guided to understanding the purpose of the reading. They need to be equipped with tools and strategies so that they know how to remain engaged throughout the reading.

Reluctant readers need to feel intrinsically motivated and engaged in reading activities (Gunter, 2012; Marinak, 2013; Ng et al., 2013). In order to overcome reading challenges, there is a need for explicit strategies. Simple comprehension tasks and fluency practice are not sufficient nor appropriate for reluctant readers. Research shows that students enjoy stories when teachers provide explicit visual connections, however, they often have difficulty in creating their own visualization of the stories (Gunter, 2012). When readers are able to construct story events using visualization strategies, their understanding becomes more accurate and detailed (Aerila & Ronkko, 2015; De Koning & van der Schoot, 2013). Explicit reading strategies, along with visualization strategies can support students' intrinsic success (Baumann, Hooten, & White, 1999; Parsons, Mallow, Parsons, & Burrowbridge, 2015).

It is crucial that educators are cognizant of potential negative attitudes towards reading. Reluctant readers lack the motivation to remain engaged and lack the ability to use strategies that can support them as readers (Guthrie & Wigfield, 2000; Wilhelm, 2007; Wilhelm, 2016). This study examined the reading self-perceptions of fourth grade students and the impact of visualization strategies. The purpose of this study was to seek out ways to support and alter students' reluctance towards reading. Working to combat reading reluctance, this study examined ways to support students' reading self-perception via visualization strategies that support comprehension. The two questions that guided this study were: how can reluctant readers be supported, and can visualization strategies provide authentic and motivating experiences for reluctant readers? The negative attitudes of reluctant readers can be altered--it is not too late.


Context and Participants

This six-week study took place in a mixed suburban-rural public school setting in Southwestern Ohio that serves students in grades 4-8. School demographics show that of the 561 students in the school, 95.7% were White, with less than 5% of other ethnicities (Ohio Department of Education, 2017). Approximately 26.7% of the students were recipients of the free and reduced school lunch program and just under 10% of the students received Special Education services, ranging from full inclusion to self-contained classrooms.

This study was conducted in the first author, Stephanie's fourth grade Language Arts classroom. While all of the students were invited to participate, parental consent and student assent was obtained from 22 of the 27 students in the class. Four students were selected as focal students in this study because they identified themselves as having low self-perception as readers on the Reading Self-Perception Scale (Henk & Melnick, 1995). In addition to the RSPS pre-assessment and post-assessment data, reading behaviors and attitudes were examined in focus group and one-on-one interviews. The four focal students participated in all other activities and data collection, and did not receive additional instruction or support. The four focal students were Corey, Layla, Manny, and Susan (pseudonym, as all names are within this study).

Focal student, Corey. Corey was a fourth grade student who actively participated in class and often sought the attention of his teachers and peers. Academically, Corey did not struggle as much as some of his peers in Language Arts, but often had trouble brainstorming new ideas when given a task. He read books that were appropriate for his grade level, but often reread books or selected books that were within the same genre. Corey was quick to compare his strengths and weaknesses to others, and was very observant of how his peers excelled at a task rather than keeping a focus on his own progress.

Focal student, Layla. Layla was the most introverted of the four focal students and was the most avid of readers in the class. Layla's favorite spot in the school was the library, and often asked to visit during instructional time. Layla enjoyed a variety of text genres, and was capable of reading texts above a fourth grade reading comprehension level. Despite Layla's apparent love of reading, she had low reading self-perception and spoke poorly about herself as a reader.

Focal student, Manny. Manny was a fourth grade student who was an eager student and enjoyed learning and asking for help when he did not understand. Manny lacked confidence regarding books and struggled with how to select books that were not only appropriate, but approachable based on his ability. Furthermore, he struggled with fluency and lacked phonemic awareness, which resulted in poor spelling and difficulties with decoding new vocabulary when reading.

Focal student, Susan. Susan was a shy student who was not as forthcoming with her thoughts and ideas, as compared to her classmates. While she participated in class routines and activities, she often chose to work independently when given the opportunity. Susan was hesitant to ask for help, and generally did not want or need supports with literacy tasks. While she sought independence from others, she was very aware of her peers and what they were reading. Susan was a proficient reader and had the ability to read books that were at or above grade level, however, she lacked self-confidence, and often selected books that were too challenging. As a result, she struggled to finish reading an entire book, and as such had a low self-perception as a reader.

Data Tools and Materials

This six-week study utilized the following data tools: Reader Self-Perception Scale, survey questions, exit slips, one-on-one and focus group interviews. In this way, a more holistic picture regarding reading reluctance could be explored. Additionally, the materials and strategies that were developed for this study sought to provide support for the reluctant readers to overcome their struggles. These four visualization strategies consisted of Photographs of the Mind, Interactive Notation Strategy for Effective Reading and Thinking (INSERT), Book Trailers, and Open-Mind Portraits (OMP). Photographs of the Mind involved the students reading in five minute intervals, then being instructed to create an artistic drawing of what they visualized was happening in the story in that moment. The INSERT strategy was a notation checklist where students marked portions of the text with sticky notes to recognize: interesting facts, unfamiliar words, and/or questions or thoughts that the text inspired. Book Trailers were similar to a movie trailer, student created short digital presentations, in the form of PowerPoint or Google Slides presentation. The Book Trailers involved critical thinking, as the students summarized and synthesized the most important details of the story, without spoiling the ending. The OMP strategy involved a template with the outline of a person's head to represent a story character. Students were asked to fill in the template with thoughts and pictures from the character's perspectives, i.e., what the character was thinking, feeling, and/or experiencing.

At the beginning and end of the study, the Henk and Melnick's Reader Self-Perception Scale (1995) was utilized as a pre-/post-assessment tool. This Likert scale enabled the students to identify their self-perception as readers regarding their General Perception (GP), Progress (P), Observational Comparison (OC), Social Feedback (SF), and Physiological States (PS). Additionally, students were asked three open-ended questions: Do you enjoy reading outside of school hours?, What is your biggest concern about reading?, and Is there something you wished your teacher could do in class that might help you enjoy reading more? These questions enabled the participants to provide more detail of their reading experiences (Cohen, Manion, & Morrison, 2007). Additionally, a brief exit survey was utilized each week to gauge self-perception regarding the literacy activity introduced that week. And finally, semi-structured interviews were were conducted to engage the students in meaningful interactions. Both focus group and on-on-one interviews enabled students to explain and describe how they felt about reading, perceived themselves as readers, and how they compared to other readers of similar age.


The Reader Self-Perception Scale (Henk & Melnick, 1995) was administered at the beginning and end of the study. The findings showed that a majority of the students had high GP of themselves as readers at the start of the study (see Figure 1), with 17 of the 22 students noting that they strongly agreed or agreed to the statement, "I think I am a good reader." The most notable results from the pre-assessment RSPS were that many students had lower self-perception when it came to their OC and SF of themselves as readers. Although many of the students demonstrated that they thought of themselves as good readers, a majority of the participants felt their classmates did not view them as strong readers. Furthermore, they felt that their reading skills were not up to the par of their classmates. In comparison, Figure 2 shows the changes in self-perception of each category by the end of the study. The SF category was perhaps the most startling data recorded in the post-assessment. The students began with a higher SF score on the pre-assessment as compared to the post-assessment. On the pre-assessment, OC and SF categories reported the lowest self-perception overall for all students.

At the end of the pre-assessment, the students were asked three open-ended questions regarding their views as readers. When asked, "Do you enjoy reading outside of school?" Thirteen students (n=22) stated that they liked reading. Responses ranged from statements such as, "Yes, it helps me relax," and "I like reading outside of school, reading makes me calm." Reading was disliked by four students who cited a range of reasons from social contexts to an inability to focus on the reading. One student explained, "No, because I've read all the good books at my house." Furthermore, an indifferent attitude towards reading was given by five students, which comments such as, "Kind of, because when I find a book I like, I read it a lot at school and at home, but when I don't find a book I like, I don't," and "Sometimes I do," demonstrating an indifferent attitude. The second question, "What is your biggest concern about reading?" was asked, nearly one third of the students expressed that unfamiliar words they encountered caused them anxiety. Manny stated, "That I am going to love a book and then I will get stuck and then can't move on." Another concern widely expressed by the students was a fear of not comprehending the text. Corey noted, "My concern would be missing a part in my book, because if I miss one part of a book, it doesn't always flow. That is why I don't like reading to someone, because sometimes I don't understand when I read with someone else." Other responses included concerns regarding the lack of library books that were of interest, and even the availability of books in their homes.

The final open-ended question was, "Is there something you wished your teacher could do in class that might help you enjoy reading more?" While nearly a third of the students indicated some form of a "no" response, others had a wide variety of ideas that ranged from extrinsic incentives (i.e., prizes or candy), to more read-alouds. Layla stated, "That my teacher could read more books out loud so I can hear her fluent words." Of the variety of responses, the most common was a request for more individual or group reading opportunities with the teacher.

At the conclusion of the study, a survey containing three open-ended questions, similar to the pre-survey, was asked: Do you enjoy reading outside of school?, Is there something you wished your teacher could do in class that might help you enjoy reading more?, and Is there an activity or lesson from the past few weeks of class that make you enjoy reading more? The data showed that for question one, 12 students responded positively, five responded negatively, and five gave indifferent responses to the question. Similar to the pre-assessment responses, the students attributed a variety of stressors that hindered reading enjoyment. Responses ranged from concerns about a specific literacy skill (e.g., comprehension, fluency, accuracy, etc.), to more generalized concerns regarding judgements by peers. While students felt more confidence by the end of the study, they were also more hyper-aware of their abilities as compared to others. One student stated, "(I'm concerned about) Messing up on a word and people laughing at me," while another student indicated, "My biggest concern about reading is that I am not a very fast reader and that I might fall behind." Such statements demonstrate the impact of OC and SF on students' self-perception. For the third survey question, all 22 students gave a positive response. The students identified that they enjoyed the OMP and the Book Trailer activity. One student commented, "These are book trailers because it opens me up to more genres." Another student noted, "(I enjoyed) the book trailers because I could find books that my friends enjoy, and so I do not read just my books." The pre-/post assessment showed that students' engagement, enjoyment, and willingness to read improved as a direct result of the visualization strategies.

Exit surveys were utilized after each strategy was taught and practiced. The exit survey questions were identical throughout the study. The exit surveys examined student's self-perception and their feelings about the visualization strategy explored that week. Figures 1-3 showed the data from the following three statements: I am a strong reader. This week's activity helped me understand the text better, and I want to try this activity with another book I read. The data from Figure 3, Statement #1 showed that the OMP had the most positive impact on student's reading self-perception. Figure 4, Statement #2 asked students to reflect on the impact of the activity on learning, and in week 2, nearly half of the students were undecided, and the other half strongly agreeing or agreeing with this statement. However, towards the end of the study, students overwhelmingly responded more positively regarding the impact of the activities on their understanding of the text. In the final exit survey during week 5, all but one student indicated strongly agree or agree to the statement.

Figure 5, Statement #3, the question focused on the students' value of the various strategies, alluding to the Expectancy-Value theory, that a skill is more likely to be utilized if it is valued (Gunter, 2012). Although all of the strategies were positively perceived, the data showed that the Book Trailers and OMPs from weeks 4 and 5, were the most positively received.

Throughout the study, interviews were held with the four focal students, Corey, Susan, Manny, and Layla. When interviewed during the first week, all of the focal students identified themselves as average, however, each focal student noted the struggles they faced when reading. For example, Manny stated, "I am, like, a medium reader," however, he continued to state that, "but sometimes 1 get stuck on words... sometimes I can't get a good fit book because sometimes I get stuck on words." Manny's statement was not unusual and while all of the focal students were reading at-grade level, they all had a negative view of themselves as readers. Group interviews reinforced the low self-perception. During one such group interview, Corey was asked about the usefulness of the Photographs of the Mind strategy. He replied, "Yes, it's a very good idea, and I really like it because it helps students visualize what is going on in the text, and they won't forget what they're reading." This reaction showed that Corey was beginning to understand the value of the strategies. His emphasis on visualize was telling, particularly since the focal students often commented about their frustrations in being stuck and not comprehending a text when they were reading. During the group interview week 4, Susan declared, "Good readers make predictions," and Layla responded, "[Good readers] can picture what is going to happen." Statements such as these show that the students were internalizing the visualization strategies that they were learning. As the weeks progressed, the focal students began to alter their negative self-perception towards reading. Corey stated during week 4, "I can't wait to get the next one (strategy) and reading on to the next book." Visualization and creating mind pictures were topics that frequently came up during the group interviews. Corey explained, "I like [Book Trailers] because some books don't have pictures in it, and you get to make what you think in your mind of the slide." Layla shared, "Well, there's a couple of people in my class who did really good [Book Trailers] of pulling in the people and making them want to read the book." The focal students encouraged Stephanie to use Book Trailers as part of the classroom literacy routine.

During the final group interview, the focal students shared their excitement in not only sharing their own work samples, but in seeing the work produced by their peers. The weeks building on new reading strategies showed in Manny's comment as he reflected, "I think that when you're done with the book, you can make an Open-Mind Portrait. Then it's really just a face and you write some stuff inside like their character traits... I think that that would make you more of a reader or more of a Daily 5 book reader, because then you can do the Open-Mind Portraits, and it could draw you into it [the book] more." Susan stated, "I thought [OMPs] were really fun because, well, everyone's characters were different, and you go to see what went on into the character's minds." Layla concluded, "I like [OMPs] because you got to see how people interact with their book, like see how they remember all the details that the characters have. And they also show a lot of their creativity that really shows how they were really interested in the book." The responses show their progress and growth in not only their learning, but also their self-perception as readers. The reluctant readers were becoming more cognizant of how visualization strategies could support their comprehension


Three significant results were found from this study with the fourth grade students: the influence of peers, the need for visualization strategies, and the importance of student choice, had significant impact in supporting the self-perception of the reluctant readers. The data showed that the challenges for reluctant readers were complex and varied, however, that visualization strategies were able to positively support their comprehension. Visualization strategies can engage, as well as motivate reluctant readers. The importance of providing social supports and explicit instructions can have a positive impact on reluctant readers.

The Impact of Peers

Peers can have a significant impact on reluctant readers (Ciesla, 2016; Nielen et al., 2016). The RSPS pre-assessment revealed that the focal students perceived negative OC, i.e., they believed that their classmates did not view them as strong readers, regardless of their actual reading abilities. While they were making comparisons, the reluctant readers would negate their own progress and growth as readers. In the weekly activity called Gallery Walk, the students would view the work of their peers, and give reflective peer feedback. As the study progressed, the reluctant readers began to view their peers in a different manner, as displayed in the group interviews. When they were asked about a strategy, rather than discussing their own progress, they would pinpoint a peer's example that they perceived to be good. Manny stated, "Especially Jordan's. He drew me in by his Book Trailer, and how descriptive he was. And the music that he added to it- was like point on." The students were able to look beyond their own struggles, and were able to begin helping and supporting one another. Susan similar identified the impact of peers, "I thought they [OMPs] were really fun... you got to see what went on into the characters' minds... and (if) you don't really understand the character traits, then they can kind of show you that... so you can understand." OC data showed that the focal students compared themselves to their peers and believed that they were not as good as their peers, and as such, were more hesitant to fully engage.

The Impact of Visualization Strategies

The reluctant readers in this study had difficulty in articulating how they could improve as readers. They could not explain or clarify what made someone a good reader or how they might overcome their reluctance and struggles. The RSPS data showed that the focal students did not view themselves as strong readers because they did not understand what it actually meant to be a good reader. Without this foundational understanding, the reluctant readers were at a loss of how they could improve their reading (Ciesla, 2016; Fisher & Frey, 2012; Hawthorne, 2008).

The pre-/post-assessment data showed that many participants struggled with reading and often cited feeling lost when encountering unfamiliar words. As the study progressed, the students demonstrated that they were not only more willing to participate in the reading activities, but were utilizing the reading strategies beyond the parameters of this study. For example, Corey stated, "[My sister] asks me to read her books and she'll ask to read it a second time because she didn't understand it well... I would definitely do it [INSERT Strategy] to my sister so she'll understand the book more". The data showed that the students became more comfortable with the explicit and purposeful instruction, and as a result, so too did their self-perception and willingness to do. As students were taught to take mental pictures while reading and displaying these images through a specific medium, their engagement deepened as well as their motivation to complete an assignment with quality, not just to completion. Reluctant readers who had initially scored low in nearly all of the categories on the RSPS demonstrated an upward trend regarding their self-perception as readers. Additionally, the students consistently asked to use and reuse the various strategies, and even to have the strategies become a part of their Daily 5. The four visualization strategies used in the study helped to change the overall climate of reading and students self-perception. The impact of using visualization strategies can be summed up in a conversation between Corey and Manny:

Corey: "[Good readers] make pictures in their mind too"

Manny: "[these strategies] kind of flow together!"

The Impact of Student Choice

At the beginning of the study, many students were mentally stuck, focused on small struggles with reading. These struggles were an impediment, impacting not only their attitudes and willingness to persevere, but also their self-perception as readers (Hawthorne, 2008, Mason et al., 2012; Sarroub & Pernicek, 2016). Once the students were taught the four visualization strategies, and these became a part of classroom practice, the students expressed more willingness to try these strategies on their own. It was in the final week of the study that the students were given the opportunity to choose the strategy that worked best for them. While positive changes were visible each week, it was during the final week that their engagement to persevere was clearly evident. Manny exclaimed, "Now you're going to express yourself with pictures and words still, and technology!" While initially, Manny was a student who struggled with moving beyond unknown words, now he was a student empowered with choice. He was willing and able to dive into a book because he had the strategies that enabled him to overcome his reading struggles. During week 6, the students' demonstrated deeper discussions of text and shared their enthusiasm during the group interviews. Supported by their knowledge and ability of how to use the four visualization strategies, the act of reading was more approachable and enjoyable. When asked what advice they had for someone who was struggling with a new book, Corey stated, "I would give them ALL the strategies we've done." Manny and Layla affirmed this statement with nods and murmurs of agreement. Certainly, the highlight for students was not only learning how to use the visualization strategies, but the confidence they gained to persevere in overcoming their reluctance, becoming unstuck as readers (Wilhelm, 2007).


Helping reluctant readers overcome low self-perceptions is not a simple task. This study found that the impact of peers, experience in utilizing visualization strategies, and student choice had a positive impact. A positive self-perception can enable reluctant readers to persevere and remain engaged, even when the reading became difficult (Chai, 2010). The research showed that providing specific and explicit instructional support, such as visualization strategies, could help the reluctant readers become unstuck (Gunter, 2012; Marinak, 2013; Wilhelm, 2007). The overall impact of visualization strategies on students' self-perceptions supported engagement, and enabled the reluctant readers to persevere and value reading. Increasing the self-perception of readers will not happen overnight, however, turning reluctant readers into engaged readers is a vital task. The time to support students' reading efforts is now--it is certainly not too late.


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Jefferson-Houston PreK-8 IB School Alexandria City Public School District

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Author:Altchuler, Stephanie; Chai, Hannah
Publication:Reading Improvement
Date:Dec 22, 2019

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