Using High-Interest Materials to Engage Secondary Students in Reading

Rita Mulholland


Secondary students with reading difficulties usually avoid reading, which contributes to their lack of academic success. This article describes a unit in which students read a play and a story that included scenes of courtroom drama. The students were highly interested in the reading, in using newspaper articles and online resources to get additional information, and in producing reports with presentation software. Their motivation led to more reading and writing as they expressed a desire to read more “real stuff.”

  Related Postings from the Archives

Introduction | The Unit | A Follow-Up | What Was Gained? | References


Struggling readers at the secondary level (aged approximately 14 to 18 years) present educators with many challenges. Some of these students have histories of academic failure and, believing they cannot succeed, they avoid engaging in tasks that might improve their skill levels (Coley & Hoffman, 1990). In my work with struggling secondary students, I developed a unit that linked reading a play with extended reading from Internet resources. This resulted in the students’ developing additional reading interests. Content objectives and promotion of basic skills and technology competencies guided each lesson in the unit.

The students involved in this unit attended a public school in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., USA. I was the reading specialist for the school. At the beginning of the school year, I met with English teachers and counselors to discuss creating a class for students who had a history of failure. Although the class would be their designated English class, the curriculum would be adapted and modified to meet these students’ reading needs. My colleagues agreed to this proposal, and the class was formed. I met with teachers and counselors again at the end of each report card period to discuss which students were ready to return to their original English classes, based on their progress in my class, and which from my colleagues’ classes might benefit from joining my class. This meant that every nine weeks, some students left the class, while others joined it.

Before beginning the unit described in this article, I worked with my students to help them understand the nature and purpose of reading for meaning (Cooper, 1997), how to keep track of information, and how to improve their reading comprehension by using multiple strategies (Gipe, 1995; Graves, Juel, & Graves, 1998; Vacca & Vaca, 1999; Yopp & Yopp, 2001). I then discussed the unit we would be working on and the purpose of each activity, so that the teenagers would understand how the activities might enhance their reading and writing skills.

Back to menu

The Unit

The focus of the unit was the play Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose. I chose this play for several reasons: It was part of the curriculum, it was easy to understand, and I believed the content would be of high interest to my students. From my years of teaching experience I know that even when the content of a text is not difficult to understand, the format can present problems. Further, struggling readers sometimes give equal attention to all words in a text. When they face word-recognition problems, they then lose focus on the main points and ideas. To help the students avoid these issues in their reading of Twelve Angry Men, I retyped the play without the stage directions. Each student received a copy. Since I knew their individual abilities and the amount of reading required for each part, I guided students in selecting the roles they would later perform when we presented the play.

The students needed to experience the growth that results from spending time on tasks that support literacy development. I hoped that use of computers would enhance my students’ motivation to engage in reading and writing, and so I planned to incorporate technology in the unit. First I needed to assess the students’ competence with the available hardware and software. The students had to turn on the computers, find a word-processing program, type a short paragraph about themselves, save it to the desktop, and print it out. I used an observation checklist to record which students could do which tasks and who was helping whom. Most students were completely unfamiliar with computers, so I scheduled class time to address needs in this area.

Throughout the unit I incorporated guided reading from the retyped version of the play, notetaking, summarizing, cloze, and sight vocabulary activities. Before I handed out the parts, I presented some general background information about the jury system, using the KWL strategy (Ogle, 1986). Students knew that juries voted on whether a person on trial for a crime was guilty or not guilty. With some prompting, they presented some things they would like to know, such as how much a juror was paid, how one gets to be on a jury, and if a judge has to listen to the jury. With these interest statements in mind, I searched the Internet for easy-to-read articles about juries, and bookmarked two sites:

As students gained interest in learning about juries, they found many more websites themselves. They made their own judgments about which ones to report on, based on their ability to handle reading the material presented at the sites.

I presented a KWL chart on an overhead transparency and explained its purpose: to find out and list what the students already knew about juries and what they might want to learn; and, by the end of their reading, to list what they did learn. During the reading of the play, students suggested statements to be added. The completed chart is shown in Table 1.

Table 1
KWL Chart Related to Students’ Reading About Juries

What I Know What I Want to Know What I Learned
Jury decides if someone is guilty How do they vote?
Is the voting secret?
Who is in charge?
What happens if they don’t agree?
What happens if the judge doesn’t like what the jury says?
Show of hands
Paper with no name
Depends on instruction
Judge doesn’t always have to listen to the jury
Jury can be wrong What happens if they're wrong?
Does a judge know if they’re thinking about the wrong thing?
Who decides about your punishment?
Can’t be tried again without new evidence
You have to be an adult How old do you have to be?
How much do you get paid?
18 years old
Depends on where you live

I informed the students that they would be taking notes during the reading of the play to keep track of the characters’ actions and of information about the evidence against the accused as it was revealed. They sighed. I told them we would be using a two-column notetaking system (Pauk, 1989). To give them practice with this strategy, I distributed copies of a newspaper article about a current jury trial. We read one paragraph at a time. At the conclusion of each, I asked the students to tell me in a word or two what the paragraph was about and to note these keywords in the margin of a sheet of paper. They then reported two or three ideas that supported each keyword, without copying sentences directly from the article. At the conclusion of the short reading, I collected the article copies so that students would have only their notes to use as they summarized the story. They then keyed their summaries and read them to me.

Several things surprised the students. First, they could not believe they remembered so much of the information. Second, they found that keying a four-paragraph paper, using a keyword as the basis for each topic sentence, was not an overwhelming assignment. And finally, they could read their own summaries with understanding. At this point, I knew the students had overcome their hesitation about notetaking because they saw its benefits and understood I would be guiding them as we read the play.

We were now ready to begin reading the play. Students drew columns on sheets of paper for their notetaking. We listed the characters’ names and information about evidence and the crime under the keyword column as information presented itself. Students made notes as important details were revealed (see Table 2), and as homework each night they wrote summaries of the day’s reading (click here for two samples). At the beginning of the next class, they keyed their summaries and saved them to disk. Then they looked over their parts for the day and reviewed the previous reading. At this point, I discussed the meaning of specific words and phrases. Students wrote this vocabulary, with a definition of each word or phrase and a sentence in which it was used. Later, I found they used these words in their summaries and in discussions, demonstrating their internalizing of the vocabulary. With the daily reading, notetaking, summarizing, and keying, students were regularly engaged in reading and writing, and they were not displaying their usual avoidance behaviors. I was surprised how proud they were of their summaries. This information prompted me to include sharing of papers in class, something the students previously had resisted.

Table 2
Sample Daily Notetaking From Reading of Twelve Angry Men

Judge Murder 1st degree
Man dead
Reasonable doubt: not guilty
Verdict - unanimous
Guard Outside door
Locked door
Jurors General talk
Heat, air conditioning
Whole week on jury
Hung jury: double jeopardy
Tickets - show
Kids run wild
Evidence Knife switch
Lost ticket - hole in pocket
Murder Son, father
Knife in chest

The students became very engaged in reading Twelve Angry Men. They were constantly putting clues together and deciding on the guilt or innocence of the defendant. On days that classes were shortened (for an assembly, school closing, or other reasons) or when numerous absences meant we could not continue reading the play, students logged on to the Internet and read, took notes, and summarized information from online sources. In addition to the jury sites noted earlier, I bookmarked and Court TV. Students read about current trials that were making headlines, took notes, keyed summaries, and reported to the group about their findings. This information usually generated more interest in reading.

During the reading of the play, students regularly completed cloze activities (Bormuth, 1968) as a check on their comprehension and understanding of vocabulary (see a sample here). Students were given a weekly summary of their grades on various activities (see Figure 1), as a way of helping them realize they were in control of their successes and failures. Their results were startling to them. I heard comments about how great they thought they were doing, how it was the first time they got an A, and even about how easy this was.

Figure 1
Summary Sheet Showing One Student’s Achievement on Unit Activities for One Week

Assignment Category Score Total Points Possible/Grade
Notes Classwork 10 10/A
Summary of notes Homework 6 10/D
Word-processed summary Classwork 8 10/B
Vocabulary 1, sentences Homework 4 5/B
Vocabulary 1, quiz Test 5 5/A
Notes Classwork 10 10/A
Classwork (40%): 77/85, A
Homework (40%): 23/30, C
Tests (20%): 15/15, A

When the play was finished, the students used their notes and summaries as they engaged in a debate about who had committed the crime. They practiced speaking clearly in full sentences with a peer. Their presented their positions very well. I wish I had recorded their efforts, since they were aware of how well they demonstrated their oral language skills and would have thoroughly enjoyed seeing themselves on video.

As a culminating activity, we watched the 1997 version of the play on videotape (a remake of the 1957 movie). I heard many comments about how the lines were delivered by the actors compared to how the students themselves read the play. They critically watched this video with knowledge of the story’s outcome. The students commented that they wanted to “read more stuff like this.”

Back to menu

A Follow-Up Unit

When I was designing the unit, I had assumed that student interest in reading Twelve Angry Men and in learning about the jury system would be high, so I was prepared to continue with similar content. I chose to follow up with the story of the 1932 kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, described at the time as the “crime of the century.” I found an easy-to-read booklet with contemporary pictures, and I bookmarked several Internet sites about the case (for example, an interview posted at and a site devoted to the case). Many educators advocate using newspapers to improve students’ reading skills (see, e.g., Cheyney, 1992). I found recent newspaper articles about Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh and their families, and about the wife of Bruno Hauptmann, the man convicted of the crime. I copied these as supplementary reading for the students. I also ordered reprints of newspapers from the 1930s so that students would be reading contemporary sources. For this unit, students again used the KWL strategy, notetaking, summarizing, and keyboarding skills. In addition, students had to produce a software-based presentation about the kidnapping.

The readings about the kidnapping did not focus on Charles Lindbergh, but I chose to present information about the famous aviator to add to the students’ general knowledge base. They were to include this information in their presentations. We read the booklet first and followed the same procedure of notetaking and summarizing as we had in reading Twelve Angry Men. By this point, these formerly reluctant learners no longer presented themselves as such. They were eager to continue reading each day and would use their lunch hour or stay after school to work on the computers. Instead of avoiding reading, they wanted to find more that had been written about the case.

Students were fascinated with the websites about the kidnapping. They read the newspapers and took notes. There was much discussion about the differences between what was recorded in the booklet, the websites, and the newspapers. The students were becoming critical readers.

When the students had enough information to begin work on their presentations, I devoted one class to teaching how to use Microsoft’s PowerPoint presentation software. They caught on quickly. They each developed their own outline of what information to present, and how. The students presented their PowerPoints to the class for their final assessment. Even though much information was repeated among the presentations, the teenagers listened to one another with high regard. A sample from a PowerPoint presentation is available here.

Back to menu

What Was Gained?

How did I measure the students’ success? There were vocabulary and comprehension checks throughout the readings. There were debates and PowerPoint presentations. In observations of the class, it was clear how engaged the students were in learning (view observation notes). I heard myself saying to students many times as they commented about the achievements demonstrated on their weekly reports, “There is a connection to spending more time on reading and writing and less time avoiding the task.” (They would usually say something to humor me, not wanting to confirm what I said.) I asked them how they felt about reading and they responded that it was OK -- if teachers would help them and they could use the computers. They said they liked reading about “real stuff.”

When I started this unit, one student left this note on my desk:

My mom did not pay to teach me how to write if I wanted to learn how to write I would not be in this class I am normal and I don't slooktupid [look stupid.] Some people good at one thing and bad at another I am good at chess anandad [and] at math that doesn't mean stupid if that's what you think I am your wrong my Dad been calling me stupid and my household family stupid. i write so people can read not to make it the way grammer is supposed to be. Writing is something to enjoy.

On the last day of class, another student showed up without any class materials -- as he had done the first day I saw him. I told him that maybe he was not ready to return to his former English teacher. He wrote me a three-page letter of disagreement, constructed perfectly with date, heading, body, and signature:

Dear Dr. M,

I was not thinking that I had to do work. Its my last day so I let [another student] have my pen. I thought all I had to do was sit here and listen. I think I am ready to go back because I kept my grades up. I messed up the last two days of class but all I did was be unprepared so I think I should go back. I have been working hard to get back. Let me try it. If I can’t handle it then I will return to our class. If I don’t ever try it then where will I be next year? So for real I need this class. I won’t fall-back. I know the class is hard but I think I can deal with it. I’m sorry if I messed-up....

I know how to be a student. I must be prepared for class. I must have everything in on-time, not later that week. If I miss a day I don’t interrupt the class. If you don’t let me go, then I might fail in high school because its harder then 8th grade English....

I include these two letters to show how far the students had come over the course of the semester. I have never forgotten an article by Allington (1977) that addresses the connection between the amount of reading do and their progress in reading. As a teacher who has always worked with struggling readers, I know that first I need to engage them, and then I need to keep them reading. At the end of the year when these students moved to the next grade level, I knew their reading and writing levels were still not what they needed to be. There was no magic performed in my class. What had happened, though, was they had learned they could read and write. They knew that they could get through a text even if they could not read every word. They also found out that they might actually enjoy reading some content. As of matter of course, they were no longer going to avoid reading just because it was reading.

Something I had not anticipated was the response to using computers. The students loved using the technology and gained many computer skills in a single semester. When I checked on how they were doing the following year, I was delighted to learn that some were actually asking questions in front of their peers, some were doing homework, a few asked if the class would be doing work on computers, and some stayed after to get help from their teachers. This was a dramatic change from their previous behaviors in class. Maybe, just maybe, they will continue to be engaged with reading.

Back to menu


Allington, R.L. (1977). If they don’t read much, how they ever gonna get good? Journal of Reading, 21, 57-61.

Bormuth, J.R. (1968). The cloze readability procedure. Elementary English, 45, 429-436.

Cheyney, A.B. (1992). Teaching reading skills through the newspaper (3rd ed.). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Coley, J.D., & Hoffman, D.M. (1990). Overcoming learned helplessness in at-risk readers. Journal of Reading, 33, 497-502.

Cooper, J.D. (1997). Literacy: Helping children construct meaning. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Gipe, J.P. (1995). Multiple paths to literacy (4th ed.) Columbus, OH: Prentice Hall.

Graves, M.F., Juel, C., & Graves, B.B. (1998). Teaching reading in the 21st century. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Ogle, D.M. (1986). K-W-L: A teaching model that develops active reading of expository test. The Reading Teacher, 39(6), 564-570.

Pauk, W. (1989). How to study in college (4th ed.) Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Vacca, R.T., & Vacca, J.L. (1999). Content area reading. New York: Longman.

Yopp, R.H., & Yopp, H.K. (2001). Literature-based reading activities (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

About the Author

Rita Mulholland (e-mail has taught for more than 20 years as a general education teacher, a reading specialist, and a special education teacher. She also teaches graduate classes in literacy, curriculum methods, and special education, and is currently a consultant with the California State University-Chico. Her interest is in the area of supporting beginning teachers in diagnosing their pupils’ strengths and weaknesses in order to plan apprpriate reading instruction.

Back to top

The words and work of students included in this article are reproduced by permission. For a printer-ready version of this article, click here.

Citation: Mulholland, R. (2002, October). Using high-interest materials to engage secondary students in reading. Reading Online, 6(3). Available:

Reading Online,
Posted October 2002
© 2002 International Reading Association, Inc.   ISSN 1096-1232