“Negative” Nelly
Shopping for Books with Struggling Readers

“Negative” Nelly

December 10, 2015 0

Recently I checked the Accelerated Reader data for the four literacy classes that Rob and I teach. Overall, the numbers were good. A significant number of students were on pace to read 250,000 words this quarter, which often equates to a year’s reading growth, if repeated each quarter. I was feeling pretty good until I saw that one of our students hadn’t read a single book in the last seven weeks. It was time for a check in (ok, way past time).


Teacher: Hey Nelly. How do you like the book you’re reading, Princess Diaries 3?

Negative Nelly: I don’t really like reading. I don’t like books.

Teacher: Oh, that’s a shame. Does that explain who you’ve been reading this same book for so long?

Negative Nelly: I guess.


Negative Nelly’s attitude and response is classic: I don’t like reading. I don’t like books. I’ve heard this hundreds of times over the years, but it still hurts to hear. Before we address some of the underlying reasons for this attitude, here are some tips to jumpstart Nelly’s reading:

  • Place her in a compelling and short book. The book should be relatively easy. It’s ok to suggest a book below her level. Remember, Nelly hasn’t been reading anything, so a short, easy book is still success.
  • Set her up with Assistive Technology, such as an audiobook. Sometimes this is the magic elixir that fixes attention problems.
  • Set very short term goals that are easily achievable at first. Challenge her to read 5 pages. Celebrate it like she read the entire book. It just feels good to succeed.
  • Check in on her comprehension. Clearing up any misunderstandings or confirming her understanding can give her confidence to continue.
  • Invite a book buddy to read the same book. Making reading social makes it more fun.
  • Establish a small incentive or competition. If reading isn’t intrinsically rewarding, make it extrinsically rewarding.


princess diaries to dork diaries

For readers who’ve been reading the same book for a long time, consider switching them into an easier, shorter book.


With these tips in mind, let’s continue our reading check-in with Negative Nelly:


Teacher: It’s time for a change. I know you were excited to read Princess Diaries when you first started. A similar book that’s just as fun is Dork Diaries. It’s about a teenager named Nikki who has started at a new school. This book is funny and quick.

Negative Nelly: Dork Diaries is too easy. It’s below my level. I don’t want to read baby books.

Teacher: This book is below your level. It should be easy for you, but I also think you’ll like it. This is a book you’ll finish in 2 or 3 days. Also, let’s have you listen to this book as you read it. We have it on audiobook. Here, give it a try.

Negative Nelly: Wha…

[Teacher places headphones on Nelly’s head, pushes play and walks away]

5 minutes later

Teacher: How’s the book?

Negative Nelly: It’s ok. I’m already on page 9.

Teacher: Awesome! I’m so glad you gave this book a chance. What happened?

Negative Nelly: Nikki thought her mom had bought her a cell phone, but instead she bought her a diary.

Teacher: Perfect. You understood that exactly. Let’s set a reading goal. How much do you think you can read in the next 10 minutes?

Negative Nelly: 15 pages.

Teacher: Put this post-it on page 24. I’ll check-in with you in ten minutes to see if you get there. You know, Positive Paula is also reading this book. At our next check-in, let’s have Paula join us.


Depending on the student, you’ll need to emphasize some of our tips more than others. But if you follow some of the tips above, you’ll likely see success. Contact us at matt@growingreaders.com or rob@growingreaders.com for more information about how to help struggling readers.

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