Thursday, October 1, 2015

Roadblocks to Reading

Being an English teacher, I've always felt the awesome responsibility to get kids to love reading. I assume that all of my English teacher colleagues have the same goal in mind. We are passionate about reading, books and kids, so why do kids ever leave our rooms hating to read? It does happen, and I have a few ideas on the matter.

We regard reading comprehension as the gold standard of being a good reader, and it is. Reading comprehension is the most essential skill that kids need going forward in their lives. We also look at reading rate and reading habits to figure out if a kid is a "good" reader. Some of the tactics that we employ in class are actually detrimental to developing good readers even though they are long-valued methods. These methods become roadblocks to reading.

The class-wide novel is a killer. There is nothing that will kill a kid's desire to read quicker than assigning a novel that the entire class will read, in parts, and dissect together. Many of us have deemed this the ultimate exercise in reading. Blech! I still remember classes in high school when I had to read Herman Melville's Billy Budd. I ran right for the Cliffs Notes (this was well before the advent of Spark Notes) and satisfied all of my teacher's requirements regarding that dreadful read. I learned nothing except that I didn't like literature very much, if this was literature. That semester, we read and dissected a few other books and I employed the same methods, earning an "A" along the way. That class taught me what I don't like to read.

The required book is another reading killer. When we tell a kid that they have to read a book, they automatically assume that it is a bad book, one that they would not choose to read on their own. After all, if it were so good, the teacher would not have to require everyone to read it; the teacher would just tell everyone about the book and they would flock to it, right? No, we see the slogging through books as a noble task that builds rigor and good habits. Kids may not like these books but reading them is "good for them" no matter how much they hate the books. After all, how will they know how amazing the book is if they don't read it and have the teacher tell them, through traditional literary criticism, how amazing it is?

We also bog kids down with so many reading-related tasks. Keep a book log, write in a journal, stop and discuss with a partner after ten minutes of reading, blog about the themes and characters and write a character analysis. All of these activities, while seemingly meaningful for the teacher, are hellish for the student. If a kiddo finds a book they want to read, the last thing they want to do is stop reading every fifteen minutes to perform another one of the countless chores associated with reading. Nothing is a bigger turn-off. If we went to see a movie and the projectionist stopped the movie every ten minutes to "process the story", how many of us would return to see a movie? None. Yet we do this to kids with their reading. Shameful.

None of these tactics will help develop good readers. Our goal for readers is that they learn to love to read and, over time, pick more challenging books to read. When we pick the books for the kids and force them on the kids, we do them no service. Helping kids love reading is much more nuanced and complex. We must first give kids choice over what they read. We can suggest, show, book-talk and recommend books to kids but we cannot choose their books for them.

Each reader brings their entire collection of life experiences to any book they read. Those life experiences combined with the text of the book become an original reading experience. No two individuals have the same reading experience of a book. It is impossible because we all bring different experiences to the reading. That's why book clubs are so popular; we share our interpretations because our interpretations are different. Because we think a book is a good read for a student means nothing. The student has to think that the book is a worthwhile read.

When kids have the power to choose their own reading material, they are invested. They have chosen a book they consider worthy of the time they will spend reading. Now, we teachers must get out of their way and let them read. We need to minimize the chores we associate with the reading. We don't need much "data" to know if a student is interested in what they are reading. Watch their faces while reading. In two seconds, we can tell who is invested in their book and who is not. When a student is so invested in what they are reading that they cannot wait to share it with others, that is a huge win.

We must give kids time to read in class. Some think, "I don't have time for that. I have more important things to do than let kids read." Well, if we think reading is so important, and it is, why would we shove it to the side as an "extra"? Reading should be the main course, and not the "standard literature" that we consider worthy of schools. Kids need time in class to read their choice of reading material. After all, when a violinist wants to get better at the violin, what do they do? They practice. Yet when we want readers to get better at reading, what do we have them do? Everything except read. Crazy, I know.

When students are given ownership of their reading choices and time to read, something magical happens - they read. Kids learn that there are remarkable stories out there that they cannot put down. They find all kinds of things to read and they develop the habits of good readers. They start making lists of books they want to read, they start comparing books to other books they've read, and they start sharing and talking about books with others. This is exactly what we do as adults. This is exactly the kind of reading behaviors that we want to encourage in our kids.

Last week before we looked at some book trailers, I asked my students how their teachers in previous grades kept track of their reading. They listed reading logs, summaries, notebooks and other chores as ways for teachers to keep track. "Did you like them?" I asked. Well, pretty much all of the kids detested them and thought they hindered their reading. "I want things to be different this year," I told them, "I want you to love reading so much that you cannot wait to get to your book." I have minimal requirements to keep track of their reading because I can tell if kids are reading or not. I allow class time to read and I observe kids reading. I know who has a book they love and who is struggling to find a good book. I know who has raced through three books in a week and who is having trouble keeping up with the story. I watch, I see, I know.

I feel it is my job to get kids to love reading. If they leave me knowing that they have the skills to pick books that they will love, that they will find time to read on their own, and they want to read in their spare time, then I have done my job. I know that helping kids develop into lifelong readers is the best thing I can do for them. It is the best way for them to grow intellectually throughout their lives. It is the best way for them to learn about things that they will never get to truly experience in their own lives. It is the best way to open new worlds to them. I cannot think of a better thing to give my kiddos.

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