1,000 Words on: Getting Students to Read

Definitely a posed picture pawned off as real of student's reading (and not texting).

Definitely a posed picture pawned off as real of student’s reading (and not texting).

As a former educator, and someone for whom the idea of re-entering the teaching profession at some point, in some capacity, hasn’t bolted its lock, I spend – and have spent – hours of my life thinking about how to get students to become interested in reading.

It would be easy to point fingers as the starting point. Standardized testing and Common Core State and National Standards, in my opinion, have ruined not only a teacher’s autonomy in a classroom, but have also jeopardized our students ability to fall in love with something as fundamental as a work of fiction or non-fiction.

I read an article recently about the differences in what we eat and what our grandparents ate and why their generation had less food allergies than the children of today and the gist of the article suggested that, in their day, what they ate was a product of what was available. It’s not uncommon for us to find fruit and vegetables in the supermarket that normally had to be “in season” for our grandparents to get. There was less of a choice. You ate what was in front of you.

Likewise, our parents, grandparents and generations backward didn’t have to options available to them in form of entertainment. There wasn’t the internet or computers or hundreds of channels (there weren’t even dozens of channels); Moving back generations, there weren’t televisions. To be whisked away to a far away land, to be entertained, one of the things people chose to do was read.

And, teachers, as was their job, introduced new books to the students each year. Books were a novelty. Imagine getting a new iPad every school year?

We spend so much time messing with the infrastructure and spending millions of dollars to reform education and perform studies on what we can do to foster the love of reading in our students, all of whom can go home and find a dozen different activities, many of which don’t necessitate him or her to do anything (unlike, say, reading a book where you are almost required to be an active presence). Netflix doesn’t ask for anything in return. Just watch and listen.

We’ve gone from classic novels to contemporary novels, fiction to non-fiction. Very little has seemed to work. I have two thoughts:

1.) We’re reading the wrong books: Somewhere, in some darkened, cigarette-smoke-filled teacher’s lounge, a group of educators decided which books were “classics” and needed to be read by everyone: Dickens, Brontë, Shakespeare, Orwell, et. al.

Many of these books are, indeed, wonderfully written and timeless novels with themes and subject matters that should relate to our students, but they don’t. Why? Because they speak an entirely different language. It’s hard to follow, social mores are different, society is different than in those novels. And, while the themes, too, are timeless, there are many books written in the past twenty years that address the same topics, written by people younger, written in a language our students understand.

We get stuck in this thinking that kids should read what we would read if we were them, or what we believe they should be reading. This is, fundamentally, wrong. We reserve the right, as should our students, to put down books we find uninteresting in favor of another book (or activity) we find interesting.

And English teachers love to cite evidence that reading classics is good for our students. Of course it is. But so is music, so is art, so is physical education. And we’re taking that away from our students constantly. Spare the students to guilt trip about “what colleges are looking for.” (The answer, truly, is “tuition checks and positive professor reviews.”)

I don’t support burning these classics or locking them away in a closet somewhere. They should be readily available to those who would like to read them, at whatever age, but they should no longer be a part of the curriculum in our public schools. I’m in the large minority in this belief, under the “we have to challenge our students” argument, led mostly by dinosaurs in English departments across the country. Yes, we must challenge students, but, first, they must have a foundation of skills in reading.

2.) Teach literature chronologically backward: If an alien ship came from outer space and asked the human race to explain basketball, we wouldn’t start from James Naismith’s 1891 phys. ed class in Springfield, Massachusetts. We’d start now, with the Miami Heat and Lebron James and we’d work backward to Michael Jordan then to Magic and Larry then to Wilt and Russell.

(Note: I argue the same teaching style for history. What’s happening now? Then move back. Here’s why this happened. And that happened because of this. Don’t politicians work the same arguments anyway?)

We should show our students examples of great contemporary literature, from literary novels to airplane reading. We show them Jonathan Safran Foer to Nicholas Sparks, the complete spectrum. Then, we can offer solutions to their reading. Well, if you like Foer, then try … If you like Sparks then try … and go backwards. Teach them the classics in college, or, at least senior year in high school.

The aim is to get students to read but we’ve spent so much time pushing Shakespeare on them, we’ve spent so much time throwing Whitman at them. If I were trying to get into rock music and you put me on to Buddy Holly first instead of Jack White, I’d lose interest quickly. This is what we’re doing to our students. Education reform shouldn’t be about new ways to teach old ideas.

One last, amazing, thought. Let them choose. Give them options, but let them choose. We want our students to become members of society? We want them to move out of our schools and into college or into the workforce and be productive members of society? Then we have to give them the freedom of choice. All of us who classify ourselves as readers walk into a bookstore and pick up books based on our interests. We have to have the faith in our students that they’ll do the same. Expect the same at home, where possible. Give them incentives to do so.

Remember, we needed incentive to eat our vegetables, too.


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6 responses to “1,000 Words on: Getting Students to Read”

  1. colin says :

    When I was in school and I know that was eons ago each summer I had a reading list. During the course of the school year there was very heavy reading with lost of papers to write etc. I think either you are curious or you aren’t and if you are you will have an imagination and reading is of interest.

    • matthewmosgood says :

      I agree with you.

      But I also think there’s a level of diligence in some of our students – led, mostly, by parents – to do what’s expected of you. Have homework? Do it. Summer reading? Do it.

      I do think we can engage students in reading greater than we have. We’ve made books mandatory, regardless of student’s reading ability or interest level. That’s wrong.

  2. Jim Giarrusso says :

    Two questions, Mathias:

    1.) Can we just come to a conclusion that kids are lazy? You could put Sports Illustrated or Playboy on the syllabus and they’d find away to complain or not read at all.

    2.) What books would put in the curriculum for say, an incoming freshman class?

    • matthewmosgood says :

      1.) Yes, I’ll agree that there are lazy students (just as there are lazy adults). Reading is hard, though, even if it is a Playboy or Sports Illustrated. It’s requires an active presence. Also, television is becoming a better medium for storytelling (I doubt, though, that our students will be watching The Wire as part of a curriculum). So, how do we compete when our best writers aren’t writing books, but pilots? I don’t know.

      2.) John Green is doing great things with the YA demographic. Also, the Hunger Games series is captivating and well-written. 13 Reasons Why is a good glimpse into suicide and bullying. Kite Runner.

  3. Ramona Lowe says :

    It’s not the books, it’s the reader. Kids will–and do– read when we respect their choices, provide time and structure for reading, and give access to books (all kinds). When teachers are secure enough to put aside the traditional roles of “teachers teaching literature” and create a learning environment that supports reading and readers, it happens. Time and time again.

    Good thinking, but for Pete’s sake, fix the apostrophe error in the opening sentence.

    • matthewmosgood says :

      We do a heck of a job with quick fixes in his time in our history. Bored? Put on a movie, go online. Finishing a book requires work and, in the end, there is a greater satisfaction than finishing even the most thought provoking movie.

      Until we get back to satisfying that need of accomplishing a difficult or meaningful task, getting kids to read will still be difficult. Cliffs notes, Spaknotes, et all made reading a joyless task because the answers were all provided.

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