Getting Kids To Actually Like Reading Again

As an English Teacher, I tend to focus quite a bit on the culture of writing. I want to develop a generation of students who are not afraid to express themselves on paper, fight for what they believe in, and move others through their words. Everything that goes on in the classroom, whether it is an in-class debate, a discussion, a student argument presentation, or a close reading activity is an effort to establish that culture. 

That last activity is one that has gained more traction in classrooms. Thankfully, educators see the need to guide students through close reading activities in an effort to allow students to view the craft of writing, make connections, learn the nuances of story telling, and to see how writers use different techniques to achieve an effect. Young writers need to see good writing; they need to see a lot of it. Young writers need to see good writers using advanced techniques. Young writers need those models so that they can experiment with their own writing and find their own voices. It is why, even when the ultimate goal is writing, the skill and activity of reading is still important in every classroom.

English Teachers have multiple tasks. The first is to foster that culture of writing. It is through that culture that we can raise our next generation of leaders, creative thinkers, and story tellers. The second is to develop a culture of argument. We must show young students how to develop and support a claim. We must show them how to evaluate other perspectives, how to refute the opposition properly, and how to evaluate sources. Third, and no less important than the other two, we must foster a love of reading.

Sadly, for that last one, we may be doing the exact opposite.

Sure, we can blame “these kids” and “this generation” for the lack of a love of reading. We can talk all we want about technology and how kids would rather play games or stare blankly into their screens rather than read a piece of literature. We can talk about how kids don’t have the stamina or the proficiency to read the books we assign. And, we can talk about how kids will do everything they can to avoid actually reading at home, whether it is Sparknotes, copying a classmate’s notes, or just simply not reading and hoping classroom discussion will give enough information to piece together answers to a test or to an essay prompt.

Obviously, there is some thread of truth in all of that. Here’s another truth; “these kids” are consuming more media, written and other forms, than any previous generation. We may not be in love with some of the content–and, yes, there is some excellent content out there–and it may not be the classical literature that was forced upon us, but kids are reading, are interacting with media, and do have experiences that can be applied to any written word we want to give them in the classroom.

And, here’s a big truth: The root of the big decline in a love for reading is us, specifically the English Teacher.

It is definitely counter to how most English Teachers feel. Most love literature and were inspired to become Teachers because of that love. We want to give our classes the same experiences that mesmerized us as young people. We want them to experience the classics and show them why they are still relevant today. We want them to see that mankind has always had ebbs and flows and it was writers who not only had the courage to document these times, but were the ones who stood against the wrongs of the world and wrote about the ills and potential ills of society.

The romanticism of teaching literature is a powerful tool. It is a necessary tool if we want to develop this culture of writing. However, like every phrase that begins with “we’ve always done it this way”, we must adapt, we must change our methods, and we must integrate literature more effectively into a writing-centered classroom and into a world that may need its lessons more than ever.

Always Start With Why

I have found that students will read most pieces if you tell them why you’ve selected the particular piece. If you can stress the importance and purpose of the book, poem, article, or excerpt, most students will read. Today’s generation, thankfully, needs to know the relevance before investing time. In a world where we can send messages instantly, always be connected to the here and now, and have information just a click away, literature needs better presentation. It needs a sell job and to have its relevance proven, just like an Administrator has to prove a new initiative to his/her staff of Teachers before the Teachers buy in. If not, the faculty meeting becomes a group of people staring at their screens, participating in department group chats, and counting the minutes until they get out of the session. That sound awfully familiar to what kids feel.

It’s something I still can struggle with some times. Two years ago, I decided that my 11th grade classes would read Death Of A Salesman, the classic play by Arthur Miller. We were working on developing characters as well as using techniques such as flashbacks and internal conflicts in our own writing. The play hit all of those things. So, before actually starting to read the play, I explained to the class what we were reading for, why we were doing it, and which characters we were focusing on. Yes, we were still going to discuss the events of the play and make connections to the world, but we had a purpose when we were reading. We would practice with selections from the play, seeing how Miller used a flashback to develop the Loman men’s characters. Then, we would write our own stuff.

While the play is dry and somewhat ancient to today’s kids—the concept of a door to door salesman doesn’t exist in their world—the students read the play and were able to get things out of it. In addition to writing objectives, we had great discussions about aging, life’s purpose, and looking at your parents as you get older. It was a highlight of my year. On the end of year evaluation—I give those to kids each year—“Salesman” was one that was almost universally loved.

Last year, I knew we would read it again. Why not? It was a giant success the year before so obviously kids like it. Well, the end of year evaluation had comments like “never teach that again”, “Salesman sucks”, and “It was the most boring thing we did.”

What was the difference? Well, I assigned the play quickly without taking the time to give the context of what we were looking for. I failed to tell kids about what we would take out. As I tried to recover from that, I kept losing ground. More and more kids were turned off. The discussions were poor. The interest level was low. The writing workshops were laborious. It wasn’t the kids’ fault. It was mine because of my poor setup. I forgot what I always preach: you always have to make material relevant and useful. You have to sell it. Instead, the play became about completing something rather than experiencing something.

Maybe (Definitely) Lose Those Crazy Note Requirements

I get it. Really, I do. We need “proof” that kids actually read what we assigned. So, “what we always do” is give kids a note taking task. For years, I gave kids THE DEJ (Double-Entry Journal) as a way of keeping notes. I thought I was being progressive. I wasn’t making kids use a million post it notes. I wasn’t having them outline each chapter either. But, I was doing the same thing, just wrapped in a different presentation. I was forcing kids to follow my prescribed method. I was imposing a “have to” to everyone and that “have to” was associated with reading. Kids might have been really into the reading and even willing to read at home. But, I killed that by forcing a note taking method on them.

Obviously, the same will be true for post-it annotations, outlining, etc. All of those essentially kill any student’s love of reading. Yes, skill of taking notes is one that all learners need to know. But, after teaching them how to do each one, why force one particular method on a kid? Or, why force one on a kid if he/she does perfectly fine without notes? If we talk about differentiation, then we should definitely live it.

Now, I show each class a few ways that they could keep notes. I also ask if anyone has their own methods. From there, students are on their own. Most students pick a notetaking method; some don’t take notes. Yes, I may not have proof with a rote homework task. But, I have a better shot of getting a kid to: read, enjoy reading, and be willing to authentically demonstrate the knowledge gained from reading. Will some kids get away with not doing anything, including reading? It’s definitely possible, but they were already getting away with it, even with the rote tasks. The difference is that now kids aren’t being forced to do something they may not need or gets in the way of the flow of reading.

In short, show kids how to take notes and give them options. Then, turn them loose so they can enjoy reading and not feel punished every time they have to read. In all honesty, I don’t read with a pen, paper, and highlighter.

While We’re At It…Ditch The Study Guide Too

If you want to kill any scintilla of joy in a student, give them a packet. Give them a packet of anything and they will automatically become less enthused, less motivated, and less willing to think.

Question packets are about accountability; they are not about thought. Yes, we could put questions that require thought, but that isn’t the proper forum for it. Question packets are undoubtedly born out of good intentions. Many Teachers provide them as scaffolding and as a way of showing kids what is important in the book. But, those packets are compliance. They aren’t about having a kid read a piece of literature and draw his/her own conclusions. It isn’t about finding something in the story that is related to his/her life. And, it certainly isn’t about looking at how a writer employs different techniques to get the reader to feel something.

Sadly, I can look at my Google Drive that is loaded with files from the past decade and a half. There are so many files labeled as question packet. We’ve all done them. I swore off packets only about five years ago. They’ve been replaced by Literature Circles, where students have jobs to prepare for when they meet with their book group. They have been replaced with questions for class discussion at the start of class. They’ve been replaced with writer notebook entries, allowing young writers to breakdown other pieces, learning different writing techniques, and then trying them. When one shifts towards that, reading becomes more about thought rather filling out a sheet.

Choice Can Happen

Yes, it is important for students to know the classics. But, the focus of an English class cannot be built around certain titles. We are a skills-based area. Literature is the conduit to those skills, much like it can be the conduit to force citizens to take action. We want kids to experience different genres, different perspectives, and different topics.

We still have curriculum out there that is built around a book list that is mandatory. All kids will read certain titles. While that is certainly one approach and it can be done if kids are given the “why” before given a copy, there is another way.

Why can’t students choose their own books to read? Why can’t secondary Teachers give students the same options that elementary Teachers give their students? That’s likely the reason why the majority of elementary school students love to read and that love erodes once they hit the secondary level. Elementary students take trips to the library to select a book. They have classroom libraries. They are constantly given choices. Once the excited students hit Middle School, they are suddenly cut off from all of that. They are given books. And we wonder why kids become apathetic when it comes to reading.

Choice can happen. It can happen easily. Literature Circle groups can allow groups of students to experience a novel, while another group experience another title. If they are getting the same skills, why does the content of their reading matter? If a District has a book list for each grade, why can’t the English Teacher go into the book room, pick out six or seven titles, give a walk-through of each book, and then allow students to pick the one they are most interested in? Even if a Teacher wants to teach a thematic unit, he/she can bring in four to five novels with the same theme and allow kids to pick one that they are interested in.

The latter has become my practice after years of doing it the old way. I pick six or seven titles, do a talk about each one and then allow students to pick their own. They then become literature circle groups and read. They have discussions at their group meetings, while we reserve time for me to answer some questions.

One may ask, “well, how do you test them to make sure they read?”

My answer is simple: I don’t. We’ll discuss content, but we will use that content to help drive a student’s writing. Or, we will use the content to allow the student to demonstrate their knowledge of how a writer uses certain techniques. Or, we will use the content to allow the students to make an argument. That requires much more depth than simply answering questions.

Freedom To Pace

As an old man, I try to read every night. Most nights I am successful. There are some nights, however, that I just want to watch the game, watch something on Netflix, or just zone out with the Playstation. Why can’t we treat kids like that? One of the biggest turn offs for kids and reading is the read 25 pages for tomorrow (along with the questions, of course).

There’s a few reasons. First, reading is about pace. It’s about getting into a story. When someone gets into the story, it makes the page turn so much easier. When someone has to read a set number of pages, there is no getting into the flow of the story. If a kid cannot get into that flow, reading becomes a chore. It becomes, at worse case, a rote task.

Instead of assigning nightly reading, longer reading expectations and longer term deadlines should be given. This would allow for students to read when they have the time to concentrate and actually get lost in a story. This would allow students to develop that responsibility skill and time management skill that so many adults want them to learn. This would not only give them the opportunity to do so, but it will also allow students to dive deeper into a story. Again, it’s about depth and seeing a writer take a reader for a ride, not about getting something done each night and answering “who”, “what”, and “when” questions.

If we want students to embrace reading, we need to be honest with them. We need to sell them on why we are reading. We need to show them why it is important. We need to give them options. We need to make it about skills and relevancy and not about rote tasks. If we can do that, we will see a generation of kids who rediscover their love of reading.