My last class of the day had just dismissed, the last student shuffling out of my room. I grabbed a stack of paperwork I needed to give the school bookkeeper and made my way to the office. Passing through the media center, I turned my attention to a group of students who were congregated in one of the cozier areas of the library. Some were piled on the comfortable chairs, others were huddled on the carpet and rugs. Each student held a book, but none of them were reading. I stopped momentarily and the teacher looked at me, smiled, and said, “I just don’t have a group of readers this year.” I smiled and left. On my way back through, they were still holding books and still not reading. No desire to read seemed to exist within them at that moment.
I am often criticized for my viewpoints about reading instruction, mainly from those who are adamant that motivation to read should exist in every child. Honestly, I agree. It should. With the amount of resources available to schools through programs and grants, students should be surrounded by high-interest books, educators who are familiar with those titles, and time and space to read, write, think, and talk. Unfortunately, that balance is often forgotten as students grow into upper grades where time to read, write, think, and talk is replaced with activities and assignments that diminish the value of books and reading. Kids should come to our classes with a love of literacy, but often, they have no reason to read. It is a chore, an obstacle, and it is something you accomplish only in a reading or English classroom. Billy Collins would tell us that their only reason to read is to force a confession out of a piece of literature. Such a sad truth.
Each year students enter my classroom with mixed feelings about books and reading. Their attitudes teeter on the edge between disdain and curiosity: why do people keep telling me something I despise is so important? I ask students to complete an interest inventory at the beginning of the year that assesses their feelings about reading but also gives me a chance to know them as people, not just as students. These interest inventories are often filled with disheartening honesty and unfortunate truths—they believe reading is just not for them. I notice the abundant mentions of video games and that they enjoy hearing a book read aloud. They love stories, but they are reluctant to engage in the act of reading. Even though this appears disheartening, I still see rays of light.
Deep inside of everyone is a passion for story. People want to see a narrative arc embedded in all types of writing, both fiction and nonfiction. Essentially, we want to see characters (or people) involved in a conflict and seeking a resolution—the elements of stories, both real and imagined. Story is part of humanity, woven into the fabric of time and space, intricate pieces of experience that help us gauge our actions, provide a metric by which we live, and engage us in discourses that have endured for millenia. Story runs in our blood and exists in the narratives we weave each day through living. Knowing that this passion for story exists within all of us helps me leverage my work with students, especially when I invite them to experience books and reading. But, if I want them to fall in love with books, a rationale, one that lives deep within them, has to come alive.
If we want students to read, we have to give them a reason to do so. Explaining to students that reading is good for them is not a strong reason. Telling kids that our classes will give them the skills necessary for navigating difficult texts later in their lives is not true unless they are reading voluminously. And honestly, unless their reading lives originate from a place of love, students will not evaluate deeply or analyze carefully the words and phrases that constitute the books and passages they will encounter. I know because I have experienced both in my classroom: students whose literary analysis is based on compliance and those whose literary analysis is grounded in a love of reading. I’ve watched many students gravitate to more complex books because they had choice. I’ve seen many students tackle the challenging mentor texts and study pieces I hand them because close reading and analysis started from a place of love. I’ve expected students to read independently, select books that are increasingly difficult, talk about books, and listen during book talks throughout the week. I’ve read aloud to students from picture books and chapter books. Together we have laughed, mourned, and questioned because the characters have compelled our thinking and our hearts. Students want to read when it comes from a place deep inside, and they will if we give them a reason.
So how do we begin to give students a reason to read? I don’t know a perfect answer, but my success with reluctant readers is born from the courage to try something new and stand upon the shoulders of mentors whose writing and guidance has helped my practice. When students come into my class, I am genuinely curious about the things that engage or distance them when it comes to reading. What have teachers done to move them as readers? What classroom structures have helped promote and sustain their independent reading lives? My experience with gifted, struggling, and reluctant readers has led me to understand how the following strategies and ideas lead to joyful experiences with books.
- Book Talks. Reluctant and struggling readers have no idea what types of books are available. Their understanding of books is generally limited to the titles that teachers bring into the classroom. A quality book talk, especially at the beginning of class each day, opens a world of engaging titles to your students. During book talks, I hold the book, give a brief summary, read a high interest part aloud, and discuss how this book made me feel. Emotion is an intrinsic piece of the human experience, and when we discuss books in a way that describes our feelings, we create a touchstone for others in our presence. Students go to art, especially music and lyrics, for an emotional response. Books have the same power, but only if we open that world to them.
- Read Alouds. A read aloud is a perfect opportunity for students to hear a seasoned reader read. Many times, instructors are responsible for dismantling the negative associations that students have with books, and reigniting that passion for story can occur when kids hear a book read aloud to them. It’s necessary to select a book that is high interest. It doesn’t need to be riddled with questions about main idea and supporting evidence; instead, it just needs to be a time of joy. I struggled to show students the joy that reading can bring, but a read aloud has the power to demonstrate how joyful books are.
- Choice. One of the most powerful ways to engage students in the act of reading is to give them choice. Freedom to choose reading materials gives students ownership of their learning. Whole-class and common texts have the potential to be powerful, but if students read only what the teacher prescribes, they read less. Inviting students into the learning process can begin with offering choices in their reading lives. When students choose their books, there is a great possibility of them reading voluminously and across a wide range of genres.
- Meaningful Extensions of Reading. The activities and assignments that students complete when finished reading or studying literature should emulate the things that real readers do when finished with a book. I do not ask students to create posters of their learning or provide a menu of activities to complete to demonstrate an understanding of a text. I provide extension assignments that deepen their understanding of the book and give them a chance to participate in the activities of real readers. I often ask them to turn and talk about their books, write a letter to a friend recommending the book, explore a big idea in their writing notebooks, discuss and write about how the book is a microcosm of the world, create I Am poems from a character’s perspective, and so on. I wasted time on packets and worksheets and posters for years. Now, I want my students to do what readers do—read, write, and talk.
- Surrounding students with books. When students enter my classroom, I want them to know that books matter. Students see books displayed on the ledge in front of my room, on countertops, on the bookshelves, and (especially on the first day) on their tables. I want them to see books everywhere and have access to the ones that catch their attention. We are influenced by the things we see each day. I want students to be influenced by books, and I make sure they are in plain sight all over my classroom.
- Time and space. Practice makes perfect, but only if we are intentional with our practice. Students need lots of time and plenty of space to read. Across a year, students should be reading voluminously, taking time to read and talk about their reading during class. Unless time and space are provided, students will not be motivated to read. My lesson plan includes a non-negotiable 15-20 minute reading block each day. We don’t read as a reward when we are finished with a classroom assignment. Reading is our classroom assignment. Setting aside time to read and space to talk about reading communicates to students that reading is important and valued in a classroom.
Joyful reading is sometimes born from struggle. Scrapes and scars tell the story of our lives, showing the world that we have experienced something hurtful, but in the end, we grew. It’s the experience, though, that gives us deeper appreciation. Sometimes, the same is true of reading. I never expect that students will gravitate immediately, but after time, I notice changes, especially when they are surrounded by conversations about books and time to read them.
There is no magic formula or high-interest activity that will create readers. The only way to create readers is to get students reading. I can never give my students a strong enough reason to read. They have to experience books first, and in time, a reason to read will swell within them, causing them to crave the written word. That is joy. And that is the reason to read. We live in narrative, structuring our lives and words on the stories of people before us. Books are the keys to unlocking a world of insight and imagination, but without a reason to read them, books, and their uniquely beautiful ideas, languish on the shelves. Moving students to read with purpose and passion does not start with a class activity or activating strategy. Reading is my activating strategy—it engages the mind and the heart. And eventually, a reason to read grows.