This post is part of the Into the Classroom blog series, in which educators share their successful teaching strategies and practices.
One of the favorite parts of being a high school reading interventionist and literacy coach is the work I do with teens who come into my room telling me they hate to read and that "it’s so boring." I consider this a personal challenge, and it is my greatest reward when a student comes back to borrow books from me after they’ve finished my class. There’s really no big secret to getting teens to read more:
- Give them books they like.
- Give them a chance to change their minds.
- Give them time to read.
- Share their enthusiasm for the books they enjoy.
Letting Students Read What They Enjoy
While I do think there is always room for classical literature, for most students reading classical titles will not build a lifelong love of reading. While most of my students are very reluctant readers, I also see many of our top students going through the motions with assigned readings but devouring books they choose. So for at least a part of every class period, I allow students to read whatever they want (within reason, of course! I have vetoed Fifty Shades of Grey!).
As one of my students said to me last year, “I want a romance where I know the ending in the first 10 pages.” I knew exactly what shelf on my bookcase to point her toward. For others it’s sports, or war, or funny books about teens behaving inappropriately. And don’t forget the power of graphic novels; for students who struggle with comprehension, or can’t find a title that’s engaging, a graphic novel’s illustrations provide scaffolding for success. The sophisticated language has pleasantly surprised my colleagues who have been disdainful of graphic novels.
I have learned to refrain from any preconceived ideas of what my students might enjoy reading. Street Pharm by Allison van Diepen has proven to be immensely popular with the boys in my classes. While some teens can, most of my students cannot relate to the drug-dealing teen trying to navigate the streets, but they are mesmerized by his story. They are constantly recommending it to other students and go on to read all of her other books, and then ask me for more suggestions. It’s not Shakespeare, but that’s OK. They’re reading; they’re following a plot, making connections, and remembering—or discovering—the joy of getting lost in a book.
Allowing Students to Change Their Minds
And sometimes finding a book that lures a student in can take two, or three, or 10 tries. At the beginning of each trimester, we “speed date” with books. I scatter books around the room, then ask students to “check out” titles by looking at the cover and reading the summary and maybe the first paragraph or two. These are kids who usually pick simply by length, so even taking a minute or two per book is much more time than they usually spend! Any book that seems interesting is written in the first page of their notebooks; I ask them to include the title, the author, and a one-sentence summary. Having this list ensures that if they try a book and don’t like it, there’s always another to try. This practice pre-empts the wasting of time in “going to the library” or browsing for 30 minutes to find a new title.
I don’t have a set amount of pages I require students to read before switching, but I do ask that they read more than a few pages. Sometimes it’s too difficult for them, and sometimes it’s simply not as interesting as they’d hoped. But don’t we all do the same? Or, if not, shouldn’t we? Life is too short to read books we don’t like! My philosophy for these practices was supported by reading Book Love by Penny Kittle, an excellent resource that gives teachers practical advice to build reading volume and stamina in their classrooms.
Giving Students Time to Read
While a large percentage of my intervention class time is comprised of Comprehension Focus Group units, I truly believe that much of my students’ growth in reading comes from our independent reading time. I am fortunate enough to have a 75-minute class period, so every day starts with a half hour of silent, independent reading.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s absolute torture in the beginning of the trimester. Yet slowly but surely, we find our rhythm and routine. Putting in the time in the beginning of the trimester to ensure that everyone has a list of books to try can take some time, but it pays off as the term progresses. I’ve noticed that the reading settles us in, and the kids transition much more easily to our next activity after our reading time.
Many students have played the “fake reading” game for so long that they don’t know what to do with themselves when we start. But eventually, at least for most, it becomes easier to actually read than to employ all their usual tricks. For what it’s worth, I don’t play music, I limit passes to five per trimester, and there’s no going to the library to return a book or get a new one. If they want to change books or they finish a book during the 30 minutes, they pick a book from my classroom. The 30 minutes of silent reading is non-negotiable. Sometimes I walk around and conference with students, but most of the time I read, too. I find other times and ways to conference, but most days, we are a community of readers. I don’t know if there’s a better feeling as a reading teacher as when the buzzer sounds and the kids ask if we can keep reading!
Please know that I understand why teachers use sticky notes to annotate books—I truly do! But by the time I get these students in my classroom, they absolutely abhor sticky notes. I teach—and require—annotating for many assignments so students can show their way of thinking. But during independent reading, they aren’t required to sticky note a thing. As adults, when we read for fun, we are not required to use X amount of sticky notes per chapter. Yet in our quest to hold kids accountable, we suck all the joy out of reading.
Sharing Their Enthusiasm
A couple of times a week, I do ask kids to write a response to me about what they’ve been reading. But I don’t ever want the task to supplant the gratification of reading for pleasure. Creating a culture of enthusiasm around books is far more rewarding than any book report. I am fortunate to have an amazing library media specialist who comes in to book talk. I also like to casually share my own observations about my reading process and journey. I show book trailers, I ask students to recommend books to each other, and I never, ever judge what captures a student’s interest. I have learned that I don’t have to love what they love; I just have to appreciate and mirror their enthusiasm.
I do realize that class time can’t be all about reading for fun; there’s writing, literary analysis, language study. But making time for satisfying, independent reading can pay off. Many teens have become apathetic about reading, only going through the motions to fulfill their assignments. While school shouldn’t be all about Lexile levels, I have seen student scores skyrocket after weeks of steady, focused reading time. If students can build their reading stamina and increase confidence in themselves as readers, their willingness to tackle more challenging work increases, leading to higher achievement across all subject areas. While it’s not always simple, keeping a wide variety of books to choose from, giving students the time, and creating a culture of enthusiasm around reading can go a long way toward building readers in your classroom.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.
Dr. Troy Hicks
Professor of English and Education, Central Michigan University