Friday, 5 January 2018

Thinking about Reading

Full disclosure: I contribute to students not wanting to read. Hating to read even. I don't intend to do this, but I do. I do because I always make them do something (Ripp) with their reading. They never just get the opportunity to read.

I want my students to read for pleasure. To enjoy reading. To read because they want to, not because they have to.  I want them to read for the reasons beautifully expressed in the tweet below:

But how do you get high school students back into reading?

As an English teacher, I am always thinking about reading, but it hasn't been until recently that I have been thinking more deeply about reading. I think this is because my oldest two children are embarking on some independent reading. Ever since Marisa and Madeline were babies, my husband and I would read to them. Six years later, we still read to them (and now little Nora) every single day, with few exceptions.

Towards the end of junior kindergarten, the girls started bringing home levelled readers. Those readers are painful and boring. We would plod through them. (And full confession, we would only do them once or twice a week.) It was the same in senior kindergarten, although Marisa was more enthusiastic, so she would read two or three times a week, and Maddy, maybe once or twice. My goal is to have my daughters LIKE reading, and I was afraid that this homework reading was turning them off. Fortunately, Marisa and Madeline had excellent kindergarten teachers, who were supportive of my refusal to do the levelled readers every night, especially when they weren't "feeling" it. This support was great, because they're experts in teaching reading, and another full confession, despite being an English teacher, I don't know how to teach the basics of learning how to read. As a high school teacher, I'm supposed (?) to get students who have already mastered reading.

Now that the girls are in Grade 1, they are much more interested in reading, and often enjoy reading their levelled readers every night. More importantly, they are also interested in whatever I am reading and just words in general. When I am reading to them, they choose to read sentences here and there, and they like pointing out the words as we go along. My goal is for them to be like me: someone who likes reading, so much that as a child, my consequences for not doing my chores was having my books taken away.

This brings me to reading in high school. When do students, who loved or at least liked, reading, stop reading? And I don't mean for school. I mean, for pleasure.

How do I get high school students--those who don't see the point in, or pleasure of, reading--to read?

I have been thinking about reading, especially in the context of the independent study unit, a lot lately. Many English courses have an ISU component, where students are required to read a book independently, then do something with it. (Often an essay or a presentation or both.) I'm not a huge fan of ISUs in the traditional sense. While I still did a traditional ISU with Grade 10 Academic English, in Grade 11 College-Preparation English (ENG3C), I did not do one, and in the Grade 11 University-Preparation English course, students did an independent blog. Next semester, I am teaching two classes of ENG3C at my new school, and I thought that I could do a traditional ISU with my classes. In fact, I said, "I'll do anything once." But I'm not so sure. In general, students in ENG3C do NOT read for school unless it is in the classroom and forced upon them. Reading for pleasure is not happening, for the most part. So what do I do?

As I was pondering my questions about reading, I came across, "How to Stop Killing the Love of Reading" by Jennifer Gonzalez, based on her interview with Pernille Ripp, author of Passionate Readers. This ignited a spark in me. It has made me more resistant to the traditional ISU and is forcing me to re-envision my daily teaching. I am currently reading Ripp's blog to help me figure out how I can help students become readers. And this is where I will leave off. I'm working on finding answers to get me started for February, and I am thankful that I came across Matt Haig, Jennifer Gonzalez, and Pernille Ripp.


  1. AGREE! Reading for pleasure is pleasurable for some (ME!). And we don't want to be the reason that someone doesn't enjoy reading. But I don't enjoy running, and I don't (solely) blame my high school phys ed teacher.

    I absolutely love the way Matt Haig talked about the importance of reading in the tweet that inspired this thought process. That is why I read, and why I often so wholeheartedly NEED to recommend a book I just read to someone else. You know that feeling of "I must share this experience with someone else" - because reading a good book is an experience, like travel. But we don't force people to travel (we recommend it, promote it, justify it). But forcing people to travel doesn't make them like travel (think M going back to the hotel in Paris rather than going up the Eiffel Tower at night).
    I agree that making them accountable (doing something with their reading) may take the pleasure out of reading as they focus on that project/grade. But I also think that when you or I really read something pleasurable we want to do something with it - talk about it, share it. Maybe not write an essay, or create a book trailer.

    Is it the reading that is important for pleasure and growth? Or is it the empathy that stories develops? Can that empathy be gained through stories in other ways (tv/movies/podcasts). I know you've expanded your definition of text. Can we expand the definition for reading?

    1. Thanks for this, Lisa. I like the parallels you made between reading and gym and reading and travel.

      Matt Haig's quote and reading Pernille Ripp's blog has really made me think about the importance of reading, and I am trying to clarify my reasoning for "forcing" pleasure reading in my class. Part of me thinks the reason I want to do this is because I really don't want to do an ISU in ENG3C that involves them reading a book just so they can make connections to other articles and do a presentation. I feel like it will assuage my guilt that students aren't going to read a book independently. I need to do some more thinking about my reasoning for this shift in my thinking.

      And I do think that actually reading words (as opposed to my expanded definition for text) is important for the ideas you stated (growth and empathy). But there's something pulling at me that reading still needs to be done for pleasure.

  2. Sarah and Lisa, I think it's more complicated then simply learning to like reading. [rant on] Research shows that students who don't read for pleasure as adolescents stop developing their reading capacity at about the grade 4 or 5 level. What are the kids doing in grades 4/5 who like reading as adolescents compared to the kids who don't? In grades 4/5 the high level readers are moving away from picture books to chapter books, and are capable of making mental pictures in their minds. The kids who don't have these experiences aren't making mental pictures in the same way. They might not have a clear voice in their minds that's reading to them (the way I know you and I do). For me the only way to build love of reading is to a) build build build prior knowledge so that they have AWESOME pictures in their minds, and then b) to get them to read something AWESOME (not mediocre). Those levelled readers are great for kids who need to be motivated that way, but they're ridiculous for students who are already motivated to read. We need to allow and promote pictures as long as students want them because they will self-indicate when they're ready to move to chapter books. That's why graphic novels are enjoying a renaissance, in my humble opinion. This is why audiobooks are outselling ebooks in all demographics. Readers want/need pictures and voices to go with their reading.
    I still struggle with doing a whole class novel at the ENG4C level but I've picked an AWESOME book with deep concepts and I provide it in audiobook and print.
    Really? We need role models that the students already have to demonstrate how much they like to read. The other thing going against us as teachers is that we're part of the system, man. We're the oppressors. How can we show that language and reading are delicious tools of anarchy/rage/expression? We have to keep being edgy. King out. Just kidding - I could never pull that off. :)