Four Ways to Get Your Students Attention During Reading Instruction

March 14, 2012, Angie Barnett

Four Ways to Get Your Students Attention During Reading Instruction

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


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