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Independent School Magazine

 Online Feature

On the Same Page

 How to Teach Students to Love Reading — and Why It Matters

Winter 2008
"To be honest, Mrs. Moore," a student confided one day, "this is the first book I've read... ever." I teach high school senior English at a very good independent school. You'd think I'd be shocked by this revelation, but I'm not. In truth, I've heard it way too often — so much so that I began to wonder what these kids were learning in English, and how they were navigating English classes year after year without actually finishing a book. Some of them were even getting A's!

How do they manage to get by? They read the key parts of the text or they go online or they ask the kids who do the reading to tell them what happens or they sit in class and listen to their teacher tell them what the reading is about and feed off that. I know because I ask them.

Why, I wonder, do they have such an aversion to reading? Where has the pleasure of reading gone — the joy of falling in love with a character, staying up too late because you can't put the book down, or going to the library and surfing the shelves for the next adventure? More to the point, how have kids gotten as far as senior year and never read a book? Do they need to learn to love reading? Is that necessary for success and happiness in the 21st century? Or should we be content, in English, teaching pragmatic communication skills and leaving it at that?

For years, when I was reading, I heard my mother's voice inside my head. Gradually, with practice, that voice became my own.
Over the past several years, rather than focus on what is causing the problem, circumstances way beyond my control — the Internet, cable television, cell phones, and the ever-quickening pace of this world, etc. — I have chosen to focus on how to solve it, at least with the students who enter my classroom. To do that, I have done what I always do when I'm stuck: I scroll back through my own experience.

I love reading because I hear voices; I see pictures; I relate to characters; I want to know what happens next. Reading helps me understand my self, my world, and the world around me. Reading helps me think more deeply, feel more deeply, live more deeply.

And when did that start? Well, it started in 1973 when I was a miserable 13-year-old riding across country in the back of a VW bus with my entire family for one entire summer. All I remember of the trip is Scarlet O'Hara, Jane Eyre, Catherine Earnshaw, and my father yelling back to me far too often, "Get your nose out of your goddamned book and look around!" In all my brand-new teen angst, I could relate to the misery of those heroines and their lack of power to change it. Their worlds were not only an affirmation of my world, they provided me with an escape. I was hooked. I was gone.

Long before that, my parents read out loud to me. I was the oldest child, and when I was old enough to read, I read stories to my little sister and brothers: Aesop, the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, Beatrix Potter, Dr. Seuss. My siblings and I are all readers. We have passed that on to our own children. For years, when I was reading, I heard my mother's voice inside my head. Gradually, with practice, that voice became my own.

As I have reflected on my experiences, hoping to remedy my students' aversion to reading, I have come up with a three-part solution:
  1. Let the students choose the books they will read.
  2. Encourage them to engage emotionally in what they read.
  3. Read out loud to them.
Letting the Students Choose What Books They Will Read
For a part of each year — sometimes a few weeks, sometimes an entire term — I let my students choose their own books, and I don't care what books they choose. Giving students choices allows them to read at their own level, to develop an interest or pursue an established interest or explore several. It allows them to have power — and to reap its rewards as well as to suffer its consequences.

During that free-choice reading unit, they do all their reading outside of class, developing a taste for reading different or the same types of books, practicing time management and note-taking, as they prepare to write a "literary letter" in which they will have to make an honest and meaningful three-way connection between some aspect of the text, themselves, and the person to whom they write the letter. I allow them two to three weeks to read the book outside of class and a week to draft and revise the letter both in and out of class. In the two-to-three-week period when they are reading outside of class, I devote our time together in the classroom to reading and writing poetry and short fiction. All of our work in these two forms, both the close reading and the original writing, happens in class. We read the texts together, often out loud. Then, step by step, the students compose their own stories and poems, with the texts as models for how to use the basic elements of poetry and fiction writing effectively, a process that makes them better readers as well as better writers. None of their class work carries over into their nightly preparation, so they can devote their preparation time to reading their free-choice books.

Some of them choose the shortest books they can find — The Old Man and the Sea, Night, Death Be Not Proud. Some of them choose middle school books like The Outsiders or The Cay. And some choose Pride and Prejudice or Catch 22. The level of the complexity of the books isn't important to me. What matters is that they are all reading. They are all reflecting on how they read, what they like and don't like about reading, and how they can change their habits to make reading more fun and rewarding. And I know the engagement is real because they recommend books to each other. Last year, several read Travis Roy's autobiography, Eleven Seconds: A Story of Tragedy, Courage, and Triumph. The year before, Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep were passed around. Over the course of each year, some even boast they have read a book during the holidays or spring break.

Encouraging Students to Engage Emotionally
The second part of my solution for how to teach kids to love reading requires encouraging students to engage emotionally in what they read. When the kids choose their own books, I use the "literary letter," a device invented by Jim Mahoney and detailed in his book Power and Portfolio: Best Practices for High School Classrooms (Heinemann, 2002). The literary letter facilitates this emotional connection. Mahoney's rubric lists the "3 T's" — truthful, thorough, and thoughtful — and requires each student to make a meaningful three-way connection between the text, the person to whom he or she is writing the letter, and himself or herself. The students begin their reading knowing they will have to write the letter when they finish. This foreknowledge not only gives them permission to relate to the text and engage emotionally in their reading, it also gives a purpose to their reading notes. (One added benefit to allowing the students to choose their books and engage in them emotionally has been that students do develop more useful and efficient note-taking methods and are therefore better able to manage a text.)

The letters are usually powerful and effective. After reading Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, one girl wrote to her father about his drinking and depression. A boy who read John Knowles' A Separate Peace wrote to his older brother about living in his brother's shadow. Within the letter, they also analyzed the text and referred to specific passages to support that analysis.

Another technique I use to instill a love of reading involves preparation for the texts we read and study together. As I mentioned earlier, we devote only one part of the year to free-choice reading, never more than one term. The rest of the year, we read texts together. To get students in the proper frame of mind for these texts and to make them more receptive to the ideas they will encounter, I manipulate their emotions by reading them an easily accessible poem that echoes a similar theme or by playing them a piece of contemporary music that evokes appropriate emotions, or by allowing them to have an open discussion of an event on campus that wrestles with relevant issues. Because I have taught seniors for so long, I am familiar with the trajectory of their year, and time my texts to resonate with their experience.

For example, when we study Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes's poetry in the fall term in the thick of the college application process, or in the spring term just before graduation, I dim the lights and get them to put their heads down and remember when they were little, what they dreamed of, what they hoped for. Then I give each of them a slip of paper and ask them to write that down, crumple it up, and toss it into the middle of the room. Everyone grabs a "snowball" and reads it aloud. We repeat this "snowball fight" process, but this time I ask them to think about what they dream of, what they want now.

Then, we read the poems and discuss how the poets conveyed their hopes and dreams. When we discuss what Hughes means by "deferred" in his poem "Harlem: A Dream Deferred," the students have a very specific frame of reference for that word and all its connotations. When we imagine hope having feathers, as Emily Dickinson puts it in "Hope Is the Thing with Feathers," they can see their futures in or out of cages of their own or another's making.

Reading out loud to students
The third part to my teaching-a-love-of-reading solution entails reading out loud. Lately, when I ask students if their parents ever read aloud to them, fewer students raise their hands than in years past. This means that, when they read, many of them have no voice in their head, no movie, no imagined worlds. I have come to believe the voice, the movie, and the imagined worlds are essential not only to enjoyment but also to comprehension, to study, and to lifelong learning.

For years, I have read aloud the first chapter of any book we are studying and usually read the first paragraphs of any assignment and always the entirety of a poem. This gets the students primed for the night's work of reading to understand and interpret on their own. At least that's what I thought until I heard most of them didn't do their reading. So, lately I have found myself reading further and further into each chapter. This past year, for the first time, I read entire texts aloud: Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried and Richard Wright's Rite of Passage. And, taking turns in a read-around or taking parts, we all read one text aloud together: Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

When I am the sole reader, I give pretty dramatic readings, yelling or whispering, laughing or crying; whatever is called for. I try to make the text as alive as I can with my one voice. For the students sitting in their seats, I make the reading as active as possible, and I incorporate the first two parts of the solution: choice and emotional engagement.

For homework, I ask the kids to write 300–600-word three-level-question papers, which require them to respond personally to the text, to analyze character motivation, and to interpret the writer's purpose. They may choose to write at all three levels or only one or two. At the beginning of each chapter, they review the themes, generate the questions they want answered, and discuss recent observations from previous readings, as well as share note-taking techniques and personal reactions. As I read, the students are encouraged to interrupt with questions, which the class tries to answer, or with answers, which the class might want to entertain, to laugh out loud, to yelp in surprise or outrage, even to shed a few tears at the more poignant parts.

As they prepare to graduate, many of my students tell me they hear my voice in their heads when they read. I smile and tell them that gradually, with practice, that voice will become their own.
One big benefit to reading the book out loud to the class is that I no longer have to suspect that my students might not have done the reading. I know exactly what they are learning and who deserves an A, who deserves a B. We are all literally on the same page. Our discussions are genuine, thought-provoking, and engaging. The students think deeply and listen and speak with substance and effort. They write better, too — expository as well as expressive pieces. The more invested they become in the characters and their personal reactions to the stories, the more deeply they reason about the writer's intentions. The more deeply they reason, the more emotionally they engage and the more fully they are likely to fall in love with reading.

How "Loving to Read" is Relevant to the 21st Century
In answer to my final question about how loving to read is relevant to the 21st century, I would answer that it is relevant in several ways, all of which are demonstrated in the lessons my students have learned through my attempts to teach them to love to read. They have learned what kinds of stories they like and do not like to read. In fact, they have learned something about what resonates with them, and, as a result, they can think, feel, express themselves, and, perhaps, live more deeply than they could before. They have learned something about themselves, who they are, what their world is, and what it could be. They are better prepared to be lifelong learners and thinkers and, I hope, contributors, even if all they do is read to their own children.

As they prepare to graduate, many of my students tell me they hear my voice in their heads when they read. I smile and tell them that gradually, with practice, that voice will become their own. When I see them at reunions, they tell me it has, and they remember certain characters from the books they read as if they are old friends, certain books as if they were life-changing events. They were. Many of them read now. They don't fake it. They actually like it.

There are questions that nag me still. Does this three-part solution capitulate to the pressures of our new age? Does it compromise academic integrity? Am I dumbing down or giving in? But every time I ask myself these questions, I can hear the kids telling me, "Mrs. Moore, this is the first book I've ever read." And I remember that many of the kids weren't reading. They told me so. Why would they tell me that if it weren't true? They were learning to fake it. If I ignored that, would I not have been capitulating to a system that churned out frauds? Liars? A bunch of shallow parasites? Where is the academic integrity in that?

None of us wants to hear our students have been fooling us for years. None of us wants to spend our class time inventing ways to check if students have done the reading. What we want is for our students to love reading and to engage in it. We want them to experience the ways in which great ideas can move them, even change them, and we want them to slow down just enough to imagine a whole world beyond their own, to listen to a voice inside their heads. We want them to reconnect with their imaginations. And we want them to learn how words on a page can transform in ways that images on a screen cannot.

As we step further into this new century, I can think of no better lessons than those. Reading stories is essential. Narrative is the means by which we have ordered civilization and comprehended humankind in all the centuries recorded before this one. Stories help us understand ourselves and other selves, our world and other worlds. Stories keep us on the same page, willing to find out what happens next. Some of us are even capable of imagining it. The best way to teach students to read stories is to teach them to want to read them, to teach them to love reading.

If parents aren't finding the time and energy to engender a love of reading, then schools have to do it, and we need to keep doing it until kids are head over heels about reading. My hope is they'll have learned to love reading before their senior year — indeed, before high school. However, if they keep walking into my classroom out of love with reading, I'll continue to devote their year with me to getting us all on the same page.

Laura Rogerson Moore is chair of the English department at Lawrence Academy (Massachusetts).
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