What Teachers Can REALLY Do to Create Readers

It was during a discussion of books we loved that a student took my breath away.

“I loved Les Miserables,” she said. “I mean, it started kind of slow, but by about page 400 it got interesting.”

I swallowed hard and tried to figure out how to ask why the hell she stuck with a book that obviously bored her – but in a kinder, public school-appropriate manner.

“Wow,” I said. “That seems like a long, slow build. What made you keep reading?”

This incredibly bright young woman was momentarily flummoxed. Then, with a tilt of her head, she replied: “I’m a high school student. We’re assigned books and we have to read them; we don’t get a choice. I guess that’s bled into my personal reading.”


Actually, let’s make that Double Yikes!

The small victory is that this over-achieving student was still reading for “pleasure.” But for many, the forced reading of books is killing their love of reading. The same kids who once devoured picture books, chapter books and young adult novels often hit a point in middle school or high school, when they feel defeated by assigned novels. And when reading for school becomes a struggle, why in the world would a student choose to read for fun?

Am I endorsing the notion that teachers should never again assign a classic? That no class should ever again read To Kill a Mockingbird or Wuthering Heights? Absolutely not. There are important lessons to be learned from William Shakespeare, William Faulkner, Harper Lee, Emily Bronte, and others. But I would ask teachers to consider the ways in which they’re teaching those works.

Acknowledge that not every student will enjoy every book that’s assigned. Encourage students to think critically about the works. Are there parts of the books that they enjoy? What about the story do they dislike? Why? Don’t allow lazy answers. “I just don’t like it” shouldn’t fly. But students should be applauded if they can identify character traits or plot holes that turn them off.

Along with assigned novels, encourage students to read books of their choosing. Give students 10 to 15 minutes each day or at least several times each week to read books in class. Help students find books they’ll enjoy. If a student tells me he doesn’t like reading, I tell him he just hasn’t met the right book yet.

“Books are like food,” I’ll say. “Do you like every food?”

“No,” he’ll say.

“So, perhaps this book is your Brussels sprouts. You know it’s good for you, but you don’t particularly care for it. Let’s find something you do enjoy.”

My goal is to create lifelong readers, which means I need to help these students find books with characters they can’t stop thinking about and plots so intriguing that they can’t wait to find how what happens next. That means two things:

  • I read widely so I can make smart recommendations.
  • I get to know my students well enough that I can get a sense of what will appeal to them.

I often use what I call my “Book Dating Profile” to help figure out which books might appeal to which students (and yes, I call it a book “dating” profile, because students universally think that’s more fun than “Book Interest Survey” or “Personalized Reading Referral”). I have students answer these 12 questions:

  1. What was the last really good book you read?
  2. What are your two favorite movies?
  3. What is your favorite TV show?
  4. Do prefer to spend free time indoors or outdoors?
  5. Do you want to read to learn something or to be entertained?
  6. Do you prefer sports or mysteries?
  7. Fantasy or real-life?
  8. Historical or contemporary?
  9. Romance or graphic novels?
  10. Makes me think or makes me happy?
  11. What are three words that people use to describe you?
  12. If you wrote a book about your life, what would it be called?

If a student loved the movie “The Fault in Our Stars” and prefers contemporary over historical, I might recommend Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park. Prefer something graphic novels and books that make you think? How about Craig Thompson’s Blankets? No, the process isn’t failproof. But, with fine-tuning, I’m generally able to find a book that appeals to every student.

To get even more bang out of my book-matching buck, I schedule at least one class period each semester when every student comes with the “Latest, Greatest” book they’ve read. One by one, students give informal two-minute book talks, explaining why they loved the book they’re sharing. The students’ passion is generally contagious, and others end up jotting down title and author details so they, too, can read these amazing books. During these sessions and throughout the year, I share my enthusiasm for the novels I’m reading.

Sure, there will always be assigned reading that kids aren’t crazy about. But empowering students to choose some of their own reading materials can help them rediscover their love of books. And students who read for pleasure will surely strengthen their reading skills, increase their vocabularies, increase their reading stamina, improve their own writing, and boost their confidence.

Win. Win. Win.


1, 2, 3 … Kickstart Your Writing

Need new story ideas? Make lists.

A mashup of Brainstorming and Writing Prompts, I find that list making can help even the most reluctant writer generate new and unexpected ideas. This is a fun activity to do by yourself, tackling a prompt or two per day, perhaps. Or, if you’re leading a class, here’s how it works:

Decide how much time you want to dedicate to list making. I’ll often devote 20 to 30 minutes at the beginning or end of a class. You may, instead, decide to use one prompt per day as a writing warm up. I introduce the activity by explaining that I will read prompts one at a time and give students five minutes to respond to each one. Some prompts are silly, while others are quite thoughtful. Students are not expected to write full sentences. No one cares about grammar, punctuation or spelling. This is about idea generation only. Oh, and there are two very important rules:

Everyone participates.
No one judges anyone else’s work.

I encourage students to make the lists in their writing notebooks so they can revisit these ideas or prompts from time to time.

This activity works well with high school and college students. With minor adjustments, it could be used with any age level. You may find certain prompts are better suited to your students; pick and choose which you use. Better yet, develop your own prompts.

So, let’s get started making some lists

  1. What are THREE things people would be surprised to learn about you?
  2. If/when you become a parent, what FIVE things do you vow never to do or say?
  3. Who are the THREE people from history (living or dead) that you would most like to meet and talk to? Why? What would you ask?
  4. If you could only speak FIFTEEN words for the rest of your life, what would those words be?
  5. If you had THREE wishes, what would they be? (No, you cannot ask for more wishes.)
  6. Write a list of TWENTY things that make you happy.
  7. Which FIVE celebrities would you like to invite to a party? Why?
  8. If you could only eat THREE foods for the rest of your life, what would they be? Why?
  9. What TEN places would you most like to visit?
  10. You have been named ruler of the world. What FIVE changes will you make first?
  11. Emergency evacuation. You must leave your home within the next few minutes. Which FIVE possessions do you take with you?
  12. What are THREE lies you’ve told recently?
  13. What are your FOUR favorite things to do with your family?
  14. What are your FOUR least favorite things to do with your family?
  15. Some words just roll on the tongue. What are your TEN favorite words to say?
  16. What are your FIVE biggest pet peeves?
  17. You are adrift at sea – no land in sight. What THREE people do you want in your boat? Why?
  18. What are your top FIVE life goals?
  19. Imagine you’ve just been given a litter of FIVE adorable puppies. What names do you give them?
  20. What are TEN words you hope no one ever uses to describe you?

When you’re done with your list-making activity, you may find some students are dying to share their lists. That’s fine. Just don’t force anyone to share anything they don’t want to – otherwise they’ll begin to edit their brainstorming.

Encourage students to think about ways in which some of these prompts lend themselves to future writing. Words that are fun to say, for example, might find their way into a poem. Or, thinking about least favorite family activities could turn into a funny short story.

Where will list making take you?

Don’t Make Writing Punishment

I’ve been an adjunct artist at Tacoma School of the Arts for the past nine years. In this position, I get to “teach” creative writing to high school students.

I use the term “teach” loosely. I think, instead, I’m more of a facilitator. I encourage experimentation, let students sample processes, and promote the notion that writing may be the best lifelong hobby/therapy/entertainment you could ask for.

That’s right, I strive to make writing FUN.

So many students come into my classes with the mindset that writing is punishment. Of course they do. If they did something wrong in elementary school, they had to write sentences. If they performed poorly on a test, they had to write an extra term paper. If they got caught talking in class, they were assigned an essay on the virtue of silence. For so many, writing has become a penalty.

I spend a lot of time in my class, retraining those students to understand that writing can be fun and beautiful and creative.

Not every piece of writing is going to turn into the Great American Novel and I’m more realistic than to think many of my students will go onto earn their livings as writers. But I know for a fact, that many have taken the lessons from my class and made writing a regular part of their post-high school and post-college lives. Some are journaling, blogging or cartooning. Some are using writing to share joy and heal heartache. For some, words are the best way to connect with friends or revisit memories.

No matter how they use words, my heartfelt wish is that they find the process of writing both stimulating, rewarding and, yes, fun.