March 14, 2012

Four Ways to Get Your Students Attention During Reading Instruction

Tags: Teaching Reading Tips

student attention

Today’s students are surrounded by distractions in the classroom: friends, cell phones, social media, computers, books, and papers that are screaming to be doodled upon. Not to mention internal distractions: family drama, friend drama, stress over homework, the cute boy sitting across the room, frustration over a difficult concept, etc…

With so much constantly being thrown at your students, how can you possibly have a chance at getting their attention while teaching your reading curriculum? What can you do to help your students stay focused?

Here are four suggestions (and don't worry, you don't have to jump up on your desk - unless you want to...):

1. Teach Explicitly

Explicit instruction is important because it assures that you are explaining things accurately and in a way that students will understand. Students are much more likely to pay attention to your instruction when it makes sense. Which... seems obvious. But it's so easy to get carried off on a tangent, or even to think that students understand a concept and your way of explaining it, that it may not be as simple as it seems.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point, he references a study sponsored by the producers of Sesame Street as they sought to understand how they could capture the attention of a young audience.

Their initial thought (pre-study) assumed that children would pay attention to the show when something flashy or exciting was happening. However, the research told a different story. The researchers found that children looked away from the screen when they didn’t understand what was happening and they kept watching when the show made sense.

Sometimes we work so hard to complicate things that don’t need to be complicated. One of the most important things you can do to hold your students' attention is to simply be clear and make sense!

2. Be Interesting

Although making sense to your students is essential for any learning to take place, it doesn’t hurt to be interesting. People (especially your students) like to laugh. We like to enjoy ourselves. And… when we are enjoying ourselves, we are more attentive to what is going on around us (aka… more learning is going to happen).

The teachers I remember the most are the ones who had some personality. The crazy cat lady / Seinfeld addict, the guy that threw a rock at you when it was your turn to answer a question (this may be frowned upon in the classroom – but it worked - everyone paid attention), the cynical/sarcastic economics professor who had really awkward examples for everything, and of course, the irreverent religion teacher.

The thing that really made them so interesting and funny was that they were being themselves. Everyone is interesting. But sometimes people cover up the very thing that makes them interesting – their authentic self.

I have a friend that is one of the funniest people I know, but whenever she presents she becomes so professional and neglects her personality that you would think she was super dry and boring – which isn’t the case at all.

3. Use Orton Gillingham Instruction

You tell me, what class would you rather go to one that is strictly lecture from beginning to end OR one where you get to go up to the board and practice what you are taught, play games to ensure you are understanding what was taught, ask questions, speak, write answers to questions on a chalkboard and hold it up, use your hands? Which one did you pick? I would guess most people would pick the second option (regardless of their age).

Let your students feel alive while you are teaching them. Engage all of their senses. Use visual, auditory, and kinesthetic activities in accordance with explicit reading instruction.

Learn more about the Orton Gillingham method in our free webinar, "The Essential Need for Orton Gillingham Based Reading Instruction"

4. Give Students Time to Refuel

It’s very possible that your students are distracted and inattentive simply because they need a break. Their mind needs time to refresh!

Here’s an excerpt from another fascinating study I read today:

Andrea Faber Taylor and Frances Kuo, researchers at the Human Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, have found that spending time in ordinary "green" settings—such as parks, farms or grassy backyards—reduces symptoms of ADHD when compared to time spent at indoor playgrounds and man-made recreation areas of concrete and asphalt. The findings were consistent regardless of the child's age, gender, family income, geographic region or severity of diagnosis.

The study builds on the lab's previous finding that adding grass and trees to the grounds of public housing developments is linked to fewer reports of domestic violence and stronger neighborhood ties.

If your students are getting rowdy… hopefully, recess is right around the corner. If it’s not, I’m sure you could justify going outside as a “learning exercise”… after all, it has now been proven to reduce symptoms of ADHD (many being attention-related). And what Principal would deny a research-proven activity that improves student attention? If nothing else, make sure your students take advantage of recess and don’t let them elect to stay indoors.

We'd love to hear what's worked for you!

student engagement

Learn how Reading Horizons keeps students engaged in learning to read in our elementary reading curriculum and reading intervention program


Generic placeholder image
Jan Shapiro said

I am a Special Education teacher and agree with you on how to encourage children to learn and enjoy the process. I also find that children will be more engaged and focused when different modalities are used during instruction especially because each child has their own way of learning. Trash Can Basketball has been a favorite game of mine in the classroom. When reviewing for a test, any subject matter works, the students are divided in to teams and given a question. If answered correctly they get to throw a small rubbery squishy ball in to the trash can. They earn points for the correct answer and another if they make the shot. No matter what the disability, they behave, enjoy the competition, and it's a fun way to help them learn. I also believe in the Orton Gillingham program and find the students learn valuable strategies and rules through the 3 senses of touching, feeling and hearing in being able to decode, spell and read. Also, on a nice day what's better than taking the students outside for a change of scenery and just showing them that learning can take place anywhere. There is something calming about a sunny quiet day sitting in the grass, reading and discussing a story. It's even better to know that research supports this activity! Finally, it's all trial and error what is motivating to each child and each year is a new challenge but it just seems to make sense that the more meaningful and hands-on an activity is the more engaged I find the students to be. If a student's work is finished and approved by me then giving them time, for example, to write a letter to their pen pal or an article for the classroom newspaper, they are doing something constructive and educational. Thank you for inspiring me to respond to your article.

Generic placeholder image
Leah Davies said

Great ideas! There is also a list, "25 Ways to Obtain Children's Attention in s School Setting," that readers may want to view. See:

Generic placeholder image
Nancy E Smith said

One way to get and maintain attention is to change lighting--from fluorescent to incandescent--or if the classroom has the wiring option, reduce the number of overhead fluorescents that are on. When working with small groups, I will ask the students to get up from their seats and stand by the board--they can take turns answering questions by writing on the board. Another tactic I use is to ask a student to be the teacher--I can ask leading questions to facilitate. Or I will have a student be my scribe on the board.

Generic placeholder image
Allison said

I do agree with so many aspects of the discussion, however, there are two sides of the spectrum that are problematic in my country. Teachers are so bogged down with completing the curriclum laid out by the Education Ministry that attending to the various needs of all the different types of learners, is almost ignored impossible. I love using laughter and mirroring. After I've taught, you teach me.

Leave Comment

Authors: No content items.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Fill out this form to sign-up for our monthly newsletter.