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Best Books for Reluctant Middle School Readers

It’s a vicious cycle. Students who do not read well avoid it at all costs. Yet, reading more is precisely they must do to overcome those deficits.  In What Really Matters for Middle School Readers reading expert Richard Allington points out that a key component for improving literacy is expanding the daily volume of “high-success” reading.  He defines that as text students can read independently with 98% accuracy.  Sadly, for struggling readers, school issued grade-level texts are not likely to meet these criteria.

How can those tasked with closing the reading gap for these students overcome this Catch-22?  One element, of course, lies in teaching students the vocabulary and strategies to build their reading proficiency.  Another element, the one this post will focus on, is giving reluctant readers the opportunity to engage with Hi-Lo books—high interest texts written at a lower reading level.

Last year I was fortunate enough to work with Kristin Badger, a school librarian who made such books a priority.  She created a special section in our library and stocked it with over a hundred Hi-Lo titles from Orca Publishing.  These books cover topics of interest to those from ages 10 to 14, but with reading levels ranging from grade 2 to 6.  They look just like your typical tween books and are not identified as “easy” reads, so there’s no stigma attached to checking them out.  Kristin visited all of our intensive reading classes to unveil the new section and let students in on their “secret” purpose.  My 7th and 8th grader remedial readers devoured them—so much so that the library had to purchase more to keep up with demand.

There are many popular mainstream books as well that appeal to middle school readers who struggle.  My classroom library–nearly ten years in the making–includes hundreds of popular books, many geared to the standard-level and struggling readers I teach.  (Read my tips for starting a similar class library and get my 100+ book list here.)  Here are some of the books my students really enjoyed.

NOTE: I’ve linked each title to its Amazon write-up, but I get no compensation—zilch, zip, nada—if you click the link.  These recommendations are based solely on what my struggling readers really read.

THE CROSSOVER by Kwame Alexander

Guys can’t get enough of this novel in verse about basketball and coming of age.  That’s right!  Your struggling reader, middle school boys will clamor to read this book that features different styles of poetry in each chapter.  Even better, this award-winner is the first in a series that includes Booked (a soccer story told in poetry) and Rebound (a Crossover prequel that ups the interest-factor by including graphic novel panels alongside the poetry).

I, FUNNY by James Patterson

James Patterson is such a gifted writer, and since he turned his attention to novels specifically crafted for the middle-school set, he’s put out numerous books that could appear on this list.  This one, though, is the book I can’t keep on my library shelves.  As the name suggests, it’s hilarious—often in a bathroom humor sort of way—that prompts readers to laugh out loud (which piques their peers’ curiosity, ensuring the perpetual popularity of this title).

I SURVIVED… (series) by Lauren Tarshis

These true-life tales are written in a narrative style that makes it easy to get lost in the story.  They are a quick read—just over 100 pages—each focusing on a historical battle or natural disaster that is a sure-fire way to engage the boys in your class.  There are even teaching resources you can use with many of the books to test comprehension or practice reading skills like figurative language or inferences.  The top reads in this series (for my students at least) were The Sinking of the Titanic, The Eruption of Mount St. Helens, and The Shark Attacks of 1916.

OUT OF MY MIND by Sharon Draper

This book reminded me of Wonder, though it proved even more popular among my reluctant reader girls.  The determined female protagonist is a key reason.  The subject matter—dealing with a disability that makes communication a challenge—was another.  Your students will cheer for Melody she finds fights to be heard and appreciated for who she really is.

SMILE by Raina Telgemeier

I was surprised to find that both boys as well as girls enjoyed this graphic novel series by the author of the Babysitter’s Club books.  I LOVE that graphic novels encourage struggling readers to build vocabulary by offering visual context for words like amicable, catastrophe, epicenter and negligence (all found within the covers of this book).

UNGIFTED by Gordon Korman

Reluctant readers can identify with the middle-school underdog protagonist who challenges other people’s perception of him.  Written at a 730 Lexile level (approximately 4th grade), it’s nonetheless designed to appeal to the middle school crowd.  I also heartily recommend other books by this prolific author (more than 50 middle school/teen books), including Restart (about bullying) and The Unteachables (that you just might enjoy even more than your students).

WARCROSS by Marie Lu

This one is for your reluctant girl readers!  Written by award-winning sci-fi author Marie Lu, it has all the ingredients for success – romance, a powerful female lead, a videogame competition, and espionage!  Be forewarned, the action includes some violence, language, and a steamy hot tub scene (all tween appropriate, in my opinion).  This isn’t your unicorns and rainbows book for girls—it’s much more engaging than that.

WHO WAS. . . (series) by Penguin Publishing

Designed to appeal to student in grades 3-6, these books were still quite popular with my middle school readers.  With over 200 titles to choose from (I’m including the related series: Who Is, Where Is, and What Is), students can use them in conjunction with classroom texts to build background knowledge on numerous historical people and places.  Netflix has even created a sketch comedy series based on these books.  (Wouldn’t that be a fun way to introduce reluctant readers to the series?)  My students’ faves in this series were the books about Michael Jordan, Walt Disney, and Abraham Lincoln.

These were the top picks in my classroom. I’d love to hear about the books that hooked your young readers.  Leave a comment below.

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