How can teachers stop killing the love of reading for students?

“You do not have to burn books to destroy culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” ~ Ray Bradbury (quoted in Readicide by Kelly Gallagher)

Four years ago, I received a Michigan Reading Association Award for Educator of the Year for grades 7-12. I proudly accepted the award at a conference in Grand Rapids, but I felt like I was fooling someone. I thought, How could I receive this award and still have students who don’t like to read? Yes, I encouraged reading in my classroom, and went out of my way to stock my classroom library with engaging books. I carefully selected novels to recommend to students that I felt would capture their individual interests. However, I still had students who saw reading as a talent that they didn’t have or wouldn’t ever get.

The feelings of failure persisted when I returned to work. As I walked into the high school that Monday morning, one of my colleagues congratulated me. He then added, “Funny you should get a state reading teacher award when half the kids in our school can’t read their textbooks.” Not funny, but true: Our students needed to drastically improve their reading skills. They still do, and they aren’t alone.

The Alliance for Excellent Education issued an “Adolescent Literacy Fact Sheet” in September which states that although students in grade four score among the best in the world, by grade ten U.S. students place close to the bottom. According to the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), 70 percent of middle and high school students score below the proficient level in reading achievement. The Alliance for Excellent Education also has reported that one in four secondary students are unable to read and comprehend the material in textbooks.

Students aren’t the only ones not reading. In 2007, the same year that I received that award, USA Today reported that one in four adults had not read a single book that year.

Over the years, I have amassed a collection of books about teaching reading. I read, highlight, and take notes, always searching for strategies to help my students become better readers. One of my favorites is Reading Reasons: Motivational Mini-Lessons for Middle and High School (2003) by Kelly Gallagher. Gallagher is a full-time English teacher in Anaheim, California. He’s been teaching for 24 years, and is involved in the National Writing Project, having served as former director of the South Basin Writing Project at California State University at Long Beach. He’s written many books about teaching adolescent readers and writers, and I value what he says because I know he’s been in the trenches and he provides concrete suggestions that are effective in the classroom.

His most recent book Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It (2009) is excellent, as well. Gallagher argues that American schools are furthering the decline of reading. He defines “readicide” as the systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools. Gallagher lists four major contributing factors to readicide:

  • Schools value the development of test-takers more than they value the development of readers
  • Schools are limiting authentic reading experiences
  • Teachers are overteaching books, and
  • Teachers are underteaching books.

Seond hour English 10 students dressed up as To Kill a Mockingbird characters. Students brought in food for a social hour, including Charlotte Russe and a Lane Cake!

Four years after receiving that award and ten years into teaching, I still work daily at honing the craft of teaching reading. I know when I have successfully engaged students with a novel. Other times, I recognize that I have “killed” reading for a particular unit. In fact, we recently finished a unit on To Kill a Mockingbird that took two months to complete. No wonder students were asking, “Are we almost done yet?” This was due in part to the holiday break in the middle. Also, our school doesn’t have enough copies for every student to check out a book, so we did all the reading in class. I’ll admit culpability to overteaching the book, as well. Did we really need a quiz on every chapter? After I had provided the framework for the beginning of the book, couldn’t the students have read just for pleasure, with less direction from me? Some students enjoyed the most beloved novel in American literature despite the overkill, but for others, the book itself may have become the mockingbird. Next year, I’m going to make changes; we’re going to read for the pleasure of Harper Lee’s language, for the dose of conscience gained from Tom Robinson’s story, for the intrigue of Boo Radley and childhood fantasies, for the love of the book.

These are the types of complexities that Gallagher addresses in Readicide. He talks about finding the “sweet spot,” where the most effective teaching occurs. It is tricky to find that balance between underteaching and overteaching a book. Sometimes teachers chop up a book too much with activities, worksheets, and the materials in those overly comprehensive unit guides. Other times, teachers hand students books without providing them enough information to comprehend the text. Also, every bit of information from every book does not need to be tested or regurgitated. Gallagher recommends adopting a 50/50 approach, where half of students’ reading is academic and half is recreational, so that students are reintroduced to the idea that we read for pleasure.

One negative trend that Gallagher discusses is a dearth of interesting reading materials in our schools. Students need to be immersed in a book flood. “When was the last time your faculty had a substantive discussion about whether students have sufficient access to interesting reading materials?” he asks, adding, “It always amazes (and depresses) me that grown, educated adults can sit in a room and argue endlessly over whether a student’s pants are too baggy or whether a student should be marked tardy if he or she is not yet seat when the bell rings.” Meanwhile, he thinks about “the classrooms a few feet away missing the one thing our students need: interesting books.”

Gallagher maintains, and I agree, that having one classroom set of books is not enough. “Let me be unequivocal,” he says. “Making sure every student has a book to take home to read is the single most important issue in our quest to develop young readers.”

Sure, our school faces money issues, as do most high schools in America. However, if students cannot each have a copy of the book to read, then priorities are misplaced. When a school library is not given a budget for new books year after year, I see a problem with that. When curriculum committees are told there is no money to replace old textbooks and novels, that, too, is a serious issue. We don’t have a Barnes and Nobles or a Borders in our local community, let alone in the Upper Peninsula. There is no bookstore in Gwinn. We do have a small community library, and I encourage students to inter-library loan books from there, but how many do? A school in a community like ours especially needs to provide ready access to interesting books.

Our English Department does try to help by placing book orders through Scholastic. The books that students order allow our school to get bonus points, which are used toward ordering free books. Those become available in the library for students to check out. So far this year, students and teachers have ordered about 100 books. Not an overwhelming number, but those are books that students otherwise might not be reading, and it’s allowed us to get some new titles available for check out. It’s a start.

Gallagher suggests augmenting books with real-world texts. One way he addresses this is by providing students with a weekly reading task called “Article of the Week.” When I heard about that idea in the fall, I started providing students with the weekly articles. I get the articles from Gallagher’s website at http://www.kellygallagher.org/resources/articles.html. This school year, the sophomores have read and responded to the following articles:

“President Obama’s State of the Union Address” posted on whitehouse.gov
“Long Spells at Screen Create Health Risk” posted on socialstudiesforkids.com
“Looking Beyond ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell'” by Ben Adler for Newsweek
“The Energy of an Internet Search” by Alexandra Ossola for sciencenewsforkids.org
“Does the Constitution Have a Heart for Boobies?” Los Angeles Times
“Captive Audience: Has Advertising in School Gone Too Far?” by Andréa Ford for Time
“Should You Be Snuggling With Your Cellphone?” by Randall Stross for the New York Times
“How Writing By Hand Makes Kids Smarter” The Week
“Slumber By the Numbers” posted on sciencenewsforkids.org
“Faraway Planet Could Support Life” by Stephen Ornes on sciencenewsforkids.org
“French Burqa Ban Clears Last Legal Obstacle” posted on CNN.com
“Police Probe Rutgers Student Suicide Link to Sex Tape” posted on today.msnbc.msn.com
“The Internet Is Spying on You” The Week
“Obama Remembers September 11 with Message of Tolerance” CNN
“Food Safety Tips for the Budget-Conscious” by Walecia Konrad for the New York Times
“The Future of the Electric Car” The Week

Each Monday, students are given time to read the article, to take notes in the margins, and to write a one-page response about what they’ve read. Many students complain about having to read the articles; they aren’t accustomed to reading informational texts, and they think the material is challenging to read and to respond to in writing. Others, though, say it is their favorite activity, and that it is helping them to become more aware of news topics. I’m glad it’s a challenge, and I want them to see the value that comes from reading these articles, whether or not a particular topic is of interest to them personally. My goal is to broaden their knowledge of the world. The Article of the Week assignment is one of many suggestions that Gallagher provides that teachers can implement right away in the classroom.

I would suggest Readicide to any middle or high school teacher or school administrator who wants to reverse this downward spiral in reading. Let’s get books into our students’ hands, give them time to read, and find that balance in teaching that inspires them to love sitting down with a good book.

*Review copy of Readicide courtesy of the publisher.

Kelly Gallagher to speak about Readicide at the NWP Spring Conference. Related link: http://www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/resource/3486

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One Response to How can teachers stop killing the love of reading for students?

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