As a child, I was an avid reader. I would max out my library card (minors were only allowed to take out 25 books at a time) and then put the rest of my stash on my mom’s card, even if I had to dole out a quarter for a heavy-duty library-branded plastic bag to carry them all on the mile+ walk home.
I would take out a variety of books — fiction, nonfiction, above my “reading level”, and below. Sometimes I would take out books from The Baby-sitters Club series, even though I knew I could finish each one in an hour or two and that they would provide virtually no intellectual stimulation whatsoever. But my school still counted them toward the 12 books we had to read each month in order to get a free personal pan pizza from Pizza Hut.
Now, that was coveted pizza.
The reading log sheets were distributed on the first day of each month, fresh off the ditto machine. If you don’t remember that purple ink, allow me to digress for a moment to remind you:
There was nothing quite like receiving those oddly-scented still-wet log sheets and asking the teacher for more, just to show the entire class that I would be reading more than the required 12 books that month, even if it didn’t mean I would get more pizza.
And that was the best part — all I had to do was submit the log sheets. I didn’t have to answer any questions about the books. I didn’t have to present anything to the class. I didn’t have to analyze quotes or write about the author’s intentions. I could read fiction, nonfiction, news articles… it didn’t matter, as long as I was reading. I would read every day, even after my mom decided to buy a computer and install everyone’s favorite software, AOL 3.0. If I wasn’t reading a traditional book, I was reading the news from the AOL homepage, or I was reading about making websites with HTML, or I was reading online forums about how to make the best StickerWorld page. (I failed at StickerWorld but I mastered HTML.) Perhaps my love for reading was incentivized in the beginning, but after some time, it became innate.
My love for reading disappeared when I got to middle school. Every book we were assigned came with standards-aligned questions, literary analysis prompts, and essays. We would get to class, copy 10 or so questions off the board, sit at our desks while our peers read aloud (God forbid we turned the page early), and then we would answer each question in a complete sentence. That was it. And then we would go home, read 10 more pages, and answer some more questions in complete sentences. It was agony. I used to doze off and turn the page as soon as I heard the entire class doing the same.
The emphasis shifted from reading and saying, Wow, that’s cool! to When the author said ___, she was making a metaphorical statement about ___.
Author Sara Holbrook wrote a thought-provoking piece for The Huffington Post in which she tried to answer multiple choice questions from a standardized test about her own pieces of writing and she couldn’t do it.
Make. It. Stop.
Imagine going home after a long day, collapsing on your couch, and turning on your favorite guilty pleasure — The Bachelor. Now, imagine that you have to take notes, answer ridiculous comprehension questions, analyze what each contestant meant when they said something provocative, and then write an argumentative essay about which contestant should be chosen at the end.
STOP. For the love of God, stop.
Oh, but of course we would never ask anyone to do this. You know. Because TV time is relaxation time.
Well, reading time used to be relaxation time for me until it turned into exactly this.
Even a die-hard reality TV fan would be repulsed by the notion of turning relaxation time into let’s exercise our brain time.
I don’t WANT to exercise my brain with a rigorous reading before bed. I wanted to relax.
Long story short, I stopped reading.
By the time I got to high school, I would do anything to avoid English class, up to and including maintaining a massive book of passes that excused me from class for band practice, orchestra practice, tech crew, meetings with the guidance counselor, and so on. I got a 99 on the state English exam, but did the bare minimum in the class itself.
I hated reading.
It got progressively worse as I flew through college and grad school. By age 20, I had 2 undergraduate degrees — one in sound engineering and one in arts management. By 21, I was a grad student at Yale. When I was 24, I pursued another graduate degree in education. All the while, I read exactly zero books. Scientific journals? Sure. Lengthy online courses? Fine. Course readings? Only what I needed to read in order to add valid citations to a piece of writing. I used to see people lounging around campus, perched under trees, reading novels. Not me. Nope.
And then I got my hands on a copy of The Kite Runner. I don’t remember how. Maybe my younger brother told me that I should read it, and maybe I trusted him because he, too, hates reading. But somehow, I found myself on the train reading the first few pages.
I missed my stop.
I read the whole thing in a few days, and ranted and raved about it to anyone who would listen, as if I had just discovered this new invention — a collection of papers with words on them, bound together at the spine — a book!
So I decided to read it with my beginner ESL class.
At least it would be fun, I thought. At least I wouldn’t hate preparing each lesson.
“What are you doing?” my assistant principal asked me when she popped in to observe me.
“We’re reading The Kite Runner. Oh my God. Have you read it?”
“Oh, wow,” she said. “That book is not appropriate for beginner ESL.”
“These kids have never finished an entire book, and you’re giving them THE KITE RUNNER?”
“Can’t you just do excerpts from short stories?”
“They hate short stories and they hate excerpts.”
“Okay,” she sighed, knowing that she couldn’t force me to abandon the book. “Good luck with that.”
“Thanks!” I said, enthusiastically. “Also, do we have any money in the budget to buy some kites? I was thinking of going outside and teaching them competitive kite flying.”
It took 3 months to get through the book. Yes, you read that correctly. Three months.
But we did it. We watched the film alongside the book, and they loved it. The film is mostly in Dari, which my Farsi speakers could understand pretty well. The graphic novel was a nice supplement. I also had copies of the original text in a handful of languages other than English. We used all of them.
And guess how many questions I made them answer each day?
We had lengthy discussions about the content, but these discussions were student-generated. We did some literary analysis, but only when a student brought something up. There were no essays. There were no questions for homework. There were no target pages to be read each day.
What we did do, however, was a pretty comprehensive study of the author, the history, and the cultural and political ramifications of the book’s publication. Author Khaled Hosseini was an English language learner; he learned English at age 15 and became a prolific writer, and my students admired that.
But most importantly — they read an entire book, and they enjoyed it.
I wish I could say that this experience re-ignited my love for reading, but it didn’t. I haven’t read another novel since then. I read the news for an hour or two each day, and I’m an avid reader of articles and how-to guides, but that’s where it ends. I just don’t associate reading novels with relaxation anymore. So, I guess you can say I did eventually learn to enjoy reading again, but I never regained my love for literature.
As we sit and ponder why our students don’t enjoy reading, there are a few questions we need to ask ourselves.
- Why are we asking them to read this?
- Are we inadvertently zapping the enjoyment out of reading?
- Are we giving them enough time to read? Or are we trying to rush through literary masterpieces in 4–5 weeks?
- Is this book boring? Just be honest.
- Do they NEED to know their reading levels? You might want to know their reading levels, but do they really need to select books this way? Do you really want them to say “I can’t read this book because it’s 2 levels too easy for me”?
I’ve heard every argument under the sun for why students don’t like to read.
“It’s because we don’t take them to the school’s library anymore.”
“It’s because the school turned the library into a media center.”
By the way, let’s stop blaming technology because the prevailing complaint seems to be that kids don’t like to read, not that kids only read on tablets.
“These books are not culturally relevant.”
“These books are too hard/too easy/too old.”
Let’s just be honest — it’s not an access issue. It’s because we don’t foster the innate curiosity that children have and we ruin reading with our obsession with standardized exams.
Remember Goosebumps? R.L. Stine, anyone? Did he write those books so we could analyze the crap out of them, or so we could zone out and get into the story?
Should we really be reading The Babysitter’s Club for author’s purpose?
Do we have to find similes and metaphors or can we just read because it’s fun?
I’m not saying there’s no value in literary analysis. I’m saying that when we REPLACE reading for pleasure with close reading and literary analysis, we take away something valuable.
Just let them read.
Don’t turn every single book into an advanced course on figurative language, unless you want them to associate reading with work.
Don’t turn every news article into a setup for an argumentative essay, unless you want them to dread receiving the article you just printed out.
It’s okay to read something and to do absolutely nothing after we are finished reading it.