When I was a little kid, I loved to read. And then I went to school.
When I was in middle and high school, unless it was required for class, I rarely picked up a book. I was just staying afloat with my teacher’s reading list. I didn’t particularly care for To Kill a Mockingbird or Ender’s Game, but damn it, I had to read them. I needed to read 30 minutes each day! I had a project due on these books at the end of the month! If I didn’t do well on this book project, I might never get to university! I’d die on the streets, penniless, an unrecognized poet, wearing a ratty beret, smelling heavily of cheap merlot…
Once I trudged through the required books of high school and went to university, I read more, but only because I enrolled in English courses I found interesting: American literature, British literature, Canadian literature—yes, please, with some tea and cream!
I then began, for the first time in my life, to realize that library shelves held books that were not just about fictional people and events. There were books written by real people about their real lives. And I wish I had met these people. The closest thing to meeting them was to read their books and autobiographies.
So, it was only at university that I began to read avidly as I had in childhood.
Before university, I had no freedom in my book choices.
Before university, I had to write onerous book projects about books I didn’t care about.
Before university, all I was required to read was fiction.
Before university, I did not understand that reading books was about refining my life philosophy.
The Embarrassing Part
In the above admission I may seem enlightened to you, but the truth is, as a teacher for the past five years, I have been killing the love of reading in my students. It is painful to admit. I too have followed in the footsteps of my teachers and killed the love of reading by committing these cardinal sins.
The 5 Cardinal Sins of Reading Instruction
1. I have required all students to read the same books at the same time.
2. I have primarily focused on fiction (in part due to standardized testing).
3. I have assigned reading as homework.
4. I have taken the joy out of reading by requiring students to write reading logs as they read. I have required extensive annotations of pages.
5. I have required pages-long book reports from students, and dreaded book presentations.
The Balancing Act Between Freedom and Constraint
As Kelly Gallagher, the American educator and author of Readicide, points out, the lack of freedom students experience in our ELA classrooms is in large part due to standardized testing. As Gallagher explains in an interview with EdWeek:
“…I think schools have unwittingly exacerbated the problem. And it’s ironic because school should be the place where kids go to learn to love reading. But school has become a place where kids go to hate reading. A lot of this, of course, is driven by the testing pressures. Those kids sitting in my 9th grade class today were in 1st grade when No Child Left Behind was enacted, so they have reached high school with a belief that the real reason you should read is to pass a test or respond to multiple-choice questions. As an adult who loves to read, I would say that if I learned to read in that context, I probably wouldn’t like reading either.”
We cannot escape the standardized test at the end of the year, and the implications it has for our schools and for us, but I believe we can give our students more reading freedom within the constraints of the test.
How to Give Students Freedom & Promote the Love of Reading
- For at least one book this year, allow your students the freedom to choose a book they find interesting. Counsel them to choose a book which contains some words they don’t know in the first ten pages. Explain to them how they might uncover books that are interesting to them. Show them how to use a library catalogue search function to do this. Require them to bring a book of their choice to school by a certain date. Introduce one non-fiction assignment per year. Non-fiction books about war and famous figures are especially popular among male students. I have found many of them enraptured by books of famous athletes (e.g. Muhammad Ali) or business men (e.g. Elon Musk).
- Increase the amount of reading you do in the year and the time spent reading. If your students read two books last year, see if you can increase it to three or four books. Give students class time for free reading (e.g. 10 minutes of silent reading at the start of each class). The silent reading is great for them and for you. It allows you to quietly start your class by putting the learning objectives/agenda on the board and do attendance. Meanwhile, your students are enjoying a book and building their knowledge and vocabularies.
- Before reading, discuss the objectives for reading the book and the final project. Explain that books build life philosophies and knowledge of the world. But also explain reading helps us become better writers. Identify what you want students to pay particular attention as they read, be it theme, plot, character, or the artistry of language. Ask your students how they might demonstrate their knowledge of these objectives at the end of a three- four-week period (You will be surprised at the original and creative ideas students come up with. Sometimes, they come up with more rigorous ideas than I would myself).
- Before reading, equip students with the tools of excellent readers, such as dictionaries and, if they like, a notebook for questions.
- Before reading and after you have identified objectives, come up with success criteria and project options with the class. Discuss the project options you and the class have identified as fulfilling the objectives. Then, together with the class, create a rubric which you will use to measure student understanding.
- Collect the projects/presentations from students that they have chosen to undertake, and check for understanding. As they read, ensure that you include lots of writing assignments to develop their writing skill alongside reading comprehension. Engage in mini-lessons which teach reading comprehension techniques.
Try this system out and see what happens.
To your teaching success,