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:
- What was the last really good book you read?
- What are your two favorite movies?
- What is your favorite TV show?
- Do prefer to spend free time indoors or outdoors?
- Do you want to read to learn something or to be entertained?
- Do you prefer sports or mysteries?
- Fantasy or real-life?
- Historical or contemporary?
- Romance or graphic novels?
- Makes me think or makes me happy?
- What are three words that people use to describe you?
- 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.