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All Kinds of Readers: A Guide to Creating Inclusive Literacy Celebrations for Kids with Learning and Attention Issues

Children at reading celebration

Special literacy events and celebrations can be a great way to get kids excited about books and reading. But for kids who struggle with reading, these kinds of events can challenge their self-confidence. Here are 15 strategies to help you plan a successful, joyful reading event for all kinds of readers and learners.

Throughout the year, literacy events and celebrations can be a great way to get kids excited about books. When we celebrate reading, we send the message that reading matters, that it is important, and that it’s fun! However, it can be challenging to plan an event that appeals to kids who have difficulty with reading, or who may feel high levels of anxiety or discomfort about reading. This may be the case for kids with learning and attention issues such as dyslexia or ADHD.

Henry Winkler, who has dyslexia, speaks to this feeling when he recalls that, as a kid, going to the library “would have been my worst nightmare: a whole room full of books that I couldn’t read.” He remembers, “To me, reading looked like a magic trick, and I wasn’t in on the secret.” (Watch the video clip, excerpted from our PBS program, Reading and the Brain)

The good news is that there are steps planners can take in making reading events engaging and accessible for all students. This guide can help you get started, but the best ideas will be the ones that come from your own school community!

Notes:
  • These ideas are written with a school setting in mind but can be adapted for a public library or community setting.
  • Many of these strategies are appropriate for kids with physical disabilities, although additional considerations and accommodations should be offered where needed.

Defining the challenge

What do we mean by “literacy celebrations”?

It’s helpful to think about the kinds of literacy programs and events that happen in your classroom, school, library, or community throughout the year. These might include (but are not limited to) the following:

See more on Reading Rockets’ Literacy Calendar.

What are some reasons students don’t enjoy reading celebrations?

There are a number of reasons that students may not enjoy reading events, or worse, may find them stressful. These include:

  • Difficulty with reading, perhaps due to learning or attention issues such as ADHD, slow processing speed, dyslexia, and other language disorders
  • Not enough sensory, social, and other supports for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • A lack of assistive technology or accommodations
  • A shortage of books and activities that represent all children and their unique experiences
  • Limited amount of reading genres and formats that can appeal to “reluctant” readers
  • A sense some students have that “they are not readers” (which is more common than you think!)
  • A negative experience at a literacy event in the past
  • An assumption on the part of students that these events are for “other kids” or “smart kids”
  • A high-pressure reading activity such as a book challenge competition with public results that increases stress levels

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Here are 15 strategies to help you plan a successful, joyful reading event for all kinds of readers and learners.

Listen to kids’ voices when planning literacy celebrations

The first step in planning a successful event is to give students a chance to express their interests and preferences, whether at the classroom, grade, or school level. Get student input through, class discussions, or activities tied to the curriculum such as an author study. Individual conversations one-on-one can also be an effective way for students with learning and attention issues to verbalize preferences and concerns. Students appreciate the opportunity to express their choices, especially when it comes to reading! Explain to students that while you may not be able to implement all of their ideas, their suggestions do matter, will be taken seriously, and will help shape the event you plan.

Things to keep in mind:

  • Smaller events that give kids a chance to help plan may be more successful than big events. For example, students may prefer a Skype visit or Twitter chat with a favorite author over a big school-wide book fair. Starting small may also lead to successes on which to build in the future. Find out what a successful event will look like to them. Their answers may surprise you!
  • Students may not have had much exposure to books or reading activities. Look for ways to increase their comfort and familiarity with books on a regular basis.

Ideas for kids with learning and attention issues: Students who struggle with reading may not come forward with ideas or be too excited about planning a reading event. However, it’s worthwhile to find out about their favorite books, authors, or activities. Not only will you show that you value their ideas and increase the chance of planning an event that they enjoy, you will collect valuable information that can help inform your instruction and relationship.

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Consider an event where kids can share, swap, or recommend favorite books

Kids often like to talk about the books they enjoy and make recommendations, even if they seem resistant to reading what has been assigned. (Jon Scieszka recalls a fourth-grader he met who, in response to his mother’s declaration that he was a reluctant reader, said, “No, Mom, I’m a picky reader.”) Kids can share their ideas in a book club, book swap, or “book of the week” pick for classmates.

Give students a chance to contribute and share their experiences

Create opportunities in which students can:

  • Contribute their own talents and skills
  • Highlight an important cultural tradition or experience
  • Make a contribution to the school or local community as reading buddies or through holding a book drive
  • Share their activities through a classroom newsletter, school website, or the local media

Ideas for kids with learning and attention issues: Offering students a chance to share a talent or skill or make a difference to others can be a powerful, positive experience. Here's why:

  • It takes the pressure off the “reading” part of the literacy event
  • It builds confidence and highlight the contributions and strengths of students, as opposed to their challenges
  • It gives students a chance to share their experience and represent the class or their school publicly

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Get input from families

Get input from parents on the kinds of literacy events that they think their children would enjoy. Parents are likely to have ideas on their children’s favorite books, authors, and activities — as well as ideas on the “not-so-favorite” list!

  • If you are planning to make this a family literacy event, survey parents about their interests and the factors that are likely to impact their participation in these events. Is there a topic that is of interest to multiple families? Are there other services at the school or library that may be of interest? It may be hard to plan a one-size-fits-all literacy event for families, but getting input on their interests and priorities is an important first step in hosting a successful event.
  • Look at ways to bring activities and services to families; for example, the public librarian can come to a school event to sign families up for a library card.

Ideas for kids with learning and attention issues: If you do solicit parent input, be sure to include parents of kids with learning and attention issues and those with special needs. Approach the topic with sensitivity; the question of reading or participation in school activities may be associated with some prior negative experiences. Work with parents to come up with ideas that will help build confidence, encourage students to feel successful, and offer parents a chance to connect with each other.

Choosing and planning an event

Whether you are planning something for your classroom or for the whole school, look at your curriculum throughout the year, as well as the school’s existing calendar of literacy events and celebrations across grade levels. Ask the following questions, ideally in discussion with colleagues such as the school librarian, an administrator, and other teachers and specialists:

  • What events do we hold each year and why?
  • Who participates?
  • How successful and engaging are these events for students?
  • What kinds of feedback have we gotten about these events in the past from students?
  • If we haven’t gotten any, is there a way to ask students about their favorite / least favorite events from the past?
  • What kinds of events have students most enjoyed?
  • Are there any events that should be replaced or re-imagined?
  • Are there other possibilities that might better engage the students and families we currently serve?
  • Have we considered events that celebrate diversity such as Día or the African-American Read-In?  
  • Are there students or community groups we’d like to see participate in the future?
  • Are there other holidays and celebrations that these groups observe that can serve as a bridge?  
  • Have we taken the strengths and needs of our diverse learners into account when planning these events in the past? How can we do that more effectively in the future?
  • Are there barriers that prevent or discourage participation, such as transportation, child care, or work schedules? Are there some creative ways to remove those barriers that have not yet been tried?

Collaborate with colleagues

As you begin to narrow your focus, bring other colleagues on board, including classroom teachers, librarians, paraprofessionals, and specialists. This kind of collaboration can highlight students’ interests, strengths and needs, and it also provides an opportunity to tie the event to the curriculum and make connections across different subject areas.

Ideas for kids with learning and attention issues: Specialists in the areas of reading instruction, special education, or English as a Second Language can offer helpful suggestions on how to make events more accessible and supportive, as well as recommendations for engaging specific students. This is particularly important for classroom activities and projects but can help in planning extra-curricular events too.

Plan an event that has multiple activities, stations, or project options

Offer students choices about how they will participate, and embrace a “choose your own adventure” spirit. Consider having different kinds of activities and stations that students can choose, such as areas where kids can:

  • Be physically active
  • Listen to or act out a story
  • Browse through books and different kinds of reading materials
  • Play games
  • Do a project tied to a nonfiction theme
  • Create a craft
  • Participate in a maker project that involves some reading
  • Talk and ask questions about stories and ideas that are being shared

Asking kids to sit still and listen for a long time without a chance to move around or ask any questions is not a recipe for success!  Having students’ input on the kinds of activities they enjoy will increase the likelihood that all kids will be able to find something they like to do.

Include student supports, accommodations, and accessibility considerations in the planning

As you plan your activities, keep in minds the needs of diverse learners and the things that will allow all students to participate in the event.

Ideas for kids with learning and attention issues: For kids with learning and attention issues, this may mean technology, digital books, or other kinds of assistive technology.

For kids with other special education needs or disabilities, this may mean consideration of the event venue and activities, as well as accommodations that students use in the classroom.

In her article 7 Ways To Make National Family Literacy Day, Reading More Accessible, More Inclusive, veteran special educator June Behrmann writes, “All children and youth deserve to read. Some cannot read traditional books in print due to decoding and fluency or book handling difficulties. These can impact comprehension and access to grade-level curriculum for students regardless of their intelligence. For these readers, alternative formats such as audiobooks (with and without learning supports), braille, large print, accessible PDFs and others presentations are the best way to read.” (You can also learn more about an innovative library program designed for kids with autism in this article from School Library Journal, Do Libraries Serve Kids with Disabilities?)

Engage community partners, volunteers, guests, and resources

As you plan your activities and events, look for the people, organizations, and resources in your community that can be included in the event.

Community partners: Look for community partners who can help plan events, organize outreach, and provide some kind of donation or contribution. Here are some local organizations to reach out to:

  • Community organizations
  • Local media outlets (particularly in other languages)
  • Local businesses, restaurants, and sports franchises
  • Institutions of higher education
  • Your local library or bookstore
  • Your local teacher’s union affiliate

Volunteers: Look for opportunities to engage community volunteers and mentors (such as high school/college students or retirees) to read stories aloud, help with activities, or sit with a student as a reading buddy. Finding individuals that reflect your student population can help make the event even more positive, especially if they are available for an ongoing commitment.

Community resources: Are there resources you can incorporate into your activity to help make it feel even more relevant to students? These might include:

  • A local author or a book about a local place, person, or event
  • Local storytellers or local celebrities
  • A field trip destination where the hands-on experience can inspire kids to learn more through reading (such as a family field trip to a museum organized by a Washington DC-based literacy organization, Turning the Page)

Book donations: You may be able to find a way to make books available for kids to take home through a literacy partner or donation. Learn more in our article, In Search of Free Books.

Review book selections that will be included in activities

If books or stories will be read aloud at the event, include a diverse range of titles that represent the students’ own diversity in terms of background, culture, language, disability, and other life experiences.

  • Look for books to share in which your students will be able to see themselves, such as a story that features a character with a learning issue like the Hank Zipzer series by Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver. Hank, the main character in the series, has dyslexia. Reading Rockets’ Book Finder allows you to search for books by format (for example, graphic novels, series, beginning chapter books) and by topic (for example, multicultural books or books featuring characters with learning and attention issues).
  • If there is a theme for the event, look for books by a diverse group of authors on that theme and books that highlight a variety of aspects of the theme that will speak to different students. If you are having trouble coming up with related titles reflecting some diversity, you may want to consider a theme that lends itself to more options.

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Review book selections for sale, browsing, distribution and swaps

If access to books and reading materials will be part of the event for students to either to buy, borrow, or keep, make sure to have a wide range of titles, genres, and formats available, including:

  • Newspapers
  • Magazines
  • Audiobooks
  • Ebooks
  • Non-fiction, including biography
  • Poetry
  • How-to books
  • Maps and guidebooks
  • Graphic novels and comic books
  • Art and photo books
  • Wordless books

These formats can be especially appealing for reluctant or struggling readers. Ideally the selection of books will include not only ethnic and cultural diversity as well, but representations of socio-economic diversity, different life experiences such as adoption, and diverse representations of gender identity. (See book recommendations in the Resources section below.)

Ideas for kids with learning and attention issues: If you are planning an event, get input from students, parents, and teachers on the kinds of books that they would enjoy seeing featured. If you will be attending an event with your students, recommend some titles to the event planners in advance, in addition to any assistive technology and accommodations that will be needed.

Help students with book selections

Help students as they browse. Some students may welcome recommendations of new kinds of books; others may prefer to stick with old favorites or what’s familiar. Don’t limit a child’s choice. Let them make their own decision about what to read. While there are opportunities to encourage more rigorous reading in the classroom, the goal this time around may simply be to build confidence and comfort; keep the stakes low and the level of fun high! And remember, a child choosing a book that seems well below his or her reading level has a reason — it could be an old favorite to revisit or it could be the chance to have something new to read an share with a younger sibling.

Look for reading “role models”

If visitors, volunteers, or special guests will be speaking with kids or reading aloud, consider the following:

  • Make an effort to include a diverse range of readers as well so that students can see various adults (and ideally some adults with whom they identify) participating in reading activities.
  • Ask your guests to share stories of challenges they have overcome regarding reading or learning a new language.
  • Ask your guests to talk about reading as part of their life: favorite books, what they like to read, reading habits, places they like to read, and what they find hard about reading. Kids may be surprised to know that adults struggle with reading too!

As appropriate, make your guest aware of kids’ interests and abilities to help facilitate a positive experience for all students. (See more tips in this blog post from Rachael Walker, Guest Reader Season.)

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Don’t force it

If students seem especially stressed or anxious about attending an event, don’t force it. Look for another activity that they can do during this time. If they are anxious about a class assignment related to reading, take time to talk with them about what is making them most nervous and how the plan can be adjusted to help them be successful.

Reflect, review, and revise

After the event has ended, gather input from various stakeholders: most importantly, the students!  Also talk with colleagues, families, visitors and guests, authors, volunteers, and partners. Find out what worked well and what didn’t work well, and what was different than you had expected. Take notes in these discussions and talk about ideas for next time while it is fresh in your mind. Celebrate your successes, no matter how small, so that the next event will be even better!

Resources

Finding great books for kids

Children's books featuring characters who learn differently

Engaging struggling and reluctant readers

Inclusive classrooms and libraries

Classroom resources

Planning literacy celebrations and activities

About the authors

Lydia Breiseth is the director of our sister project, Colorín Colorado, a national multimedia initiative that offers a wealth of bilingual, research-based information, activities, and advice for educators and families of English language learners (ELLs).

Rachael Walker, our partner and community outreach consultant, is a literacy and children's book expert who blogs at Book Life and Belle of the Book.

This article was reviewed by Suzanne Lang, a longtime advocate for children with learning disabilities, and the parent and partner advisor for Understood.

Lydia Breiseth, Rachael Walker, Reading Rockets (2018)

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