When my first child was born, I asked friends and family to buy me books in lieu of other baby shower gifts. We wanted to build a library for him so that he too would love reading as much as we do. At just a few hours old, he had been read his first book, and it became a daily routine. As soon as he could walk, he would climb into our laps with a book and just wait. Silently communicating to us that it was time to read. We would spend hours, reading together, book after book, every day. I don’t remember how old he was, but around age five, he started reading for himself.
Like other kids, he started small. He read to us nightly and we helped him build his fluency. He was hungry for books. He wanted more and more. Library visits were weekly. Book store visits were frequent. His thirst was insatiable. Everywhere we went, he carried books with him. Even in the chaos of the day, he found happiness in his books.
His sister came along when he was two, and the same thing happened. He would read books to her and she became equally as voracious a reader as he was.
The third kidlet was no different. Desperate to read, just like everyone else in her family. Reading is a large portion of our days…and nights.
So, s an English teacher, my soul dies a little when I hear a kid tell me they don’t like reading. Every child enjoys being read to when they are little. Every child is excited to finally learn to read. Somewhere between those early moments and the time they get to me, this love of reading has dissolved for so many. They no longer find joy in the escape of another person’s adventure. How did we get there?
In my opinion, a couple of things lead to this.
Incentives for Reading
I read an article from The Atlantic a few years back titled, “How to Trick Your Kids Into Reading All Summer Long.”
To summarize, when we reward kids for reading, we send the implicit message that the act of reading isn’t enjoyable and that we must bribe them to make it through the painful task. At first, it seems harmless to offer incentives to children because we think it will increase their love of reading. The article tells us, as does the research on motivation, that extrinsic motivation (in this case, rewards) may work in the short term, but do nothing to build a lifelong love of learning. So, why is this practice still in place?
Districts, schools and teachers continue to provide students rewards for reading. Think of it this way. We don’t tell kids they can have prizes for swinging or eating all their dessert. Why? Because these things are enjoyable already and don’t need incentive to participate. For some kids, reading isn’t enjoyable, but the reason this happened is most likely that the modeling didn’t occur at a young age (and I realize there are some other socio-economic factors that may impact this), that parents reacted negatively when a child asked them to read to or with them (sending an implicit message that the reading wasn’t fun), or once they entered school, rewards were offered for reading (destroying the innate love of the act by sending the implicit message that it isn’t enjoyable.)
There isn’t much I can say about this, that isn’t summed up beautifully in the following quote:
I came across this quote the other day on Twitter and made the point I’ve been making about reading for some time. As adults, we rarely suffer through a pleasure book that we hate. There are numerous books I’ve put down, either because the story bored me, the writing was terrible, or the book wasn’t right for me at that time in my life.
Children should be afforded the same right, at least when it comes to reading for pleasure.
We all know there are things that we must read. In my English class, we do whole class short stories and corresponding paired passages when learning skills and that coincide with our thematic units.
The problem comes in when we force prescribed pleasure reading on kids or don’t provide time in the school day for pleasure reading. Many schools implement some kind of silent sustained reading during their school day. Some may know this as “Drop Everything and Read.” No doubt, there are benefits to this practice, if the kids are reading for true pleasure.
All of this leads to the big question and the reason I’m writing this now. I’ve made some changes this year in my classroom and the response has been overwhelming.
In past years, I’ve required the kids to read for 20 minutes a night, three nights a week and complete a dialectical journal – proof of their reading. I told them the book should be something they enjoy reading. The choice was theirs. Year after the year, the kids told it was the one thing they hated most about my class. And year after year, I justified the practice by informing them it was necessary and research supported. Close reading is, after all, best practice. There isn’t enough time in the school day to do that much reading and if their reading ability was going to grow, they needed this additional practice that couldn’t be provided in the classroom. This summed up my justification to students when they complained.
But this year, I didn’t have that fight in me. I reflected long and hard on this process and decided it wasn’t working. My SOL scores continued to have the highest pass rate in the school, but was that tied to this practice? Maybe. Maybe not.
Without that kind of data, I decided to try something else. I see the kids three times a week, so we would do that 20 minutes of reading in class instead.
If you are doing the math, that is a full hour of instructional time I am “losing” each week to just let the kids read.
I’m gonna freak you out even more. Hold onto your belt loops.
The kids do not have any assignment linked to this pleasure reading.
I know. Crazy.
During this time, I close my computer. And I read, too.
I won’t know if this is helping my scores anytime soon. If I see a drastic shift in their scores at the end of the year, then maybe this will be to blame. It is the only major pedagogical change I’ve made this year.
The feedback from the kids though, is MINDBLOWING. The first thing they ask when they walk in is, “Are we going to read today?” And they aren’t asking because they hope I say no. They are asking because they WANT that time to read. They tell me it is their favorite part of the day. To answer the question I know is running through your heads…no, they aren’t faking it. In observing them, they are all reading. You can tell. The kids who fake it are holding up a book and looking around. When you catch them, they look down real quick. They aren’t sneaky. We all know what fake reading looks like. That isn’t happening in my room.
I guess the results of this grand experiment are yet to be seen. But right now, I’m (hopefully) modeling and building a love of reading. Shouldn’t that be the goal?