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“Children should learn that reading is pleasure, not just something that teachers make you do in school.” ~Beverly Cleary
The first day of school I welcome my 8th graders to my English class with a survey about their reading life. I ask them to be extremely honest so I can gauge where they are as readers, what sorts of books they might like, and how I can best encourage them. Because they are 8th graders, they easily comply with the request for truthiness. While a lot of students said they love to read, many claim that reading is the very last thing they would choose to do if given an hour of free time. In fact, I had one student say he would “rather stare at the wall for the hour of free time than crack open a stupid book.” Charming.
When prodded, most kids will tell me their love of reading took a dive toward the end of elementary school and into middle school–when their teachers started assigning whole class books and giving tests and papers over those books. When teachers did give them a choice, it was always in the form of “read what you want at home for X amount of time and fill in this reading log.” I don’t know about you, but as a reader, this is not what I do.
In fact, we do not treat our students as readers; we treat them as if our expectation is that they won’t do it. Why else would we make them prove it with something like a reading log? Donalyn Miller says that “students will rise to the level of the teacher’s expectations” (35). I have found this to be true.
Last fall was my first year at the junior high school. While I was shelving my classroom library, another teacher was telling me about how they had tried to let the kids pick their own book to read last year, and it failed. “They just don’t read. But maybe they will for you.”
My expectation is that my students will read. When I tell them this on the first day, many are cynical. They’ve heard this expectation before. Then they were told to do it all on their own and fill out a reading log to prove they did it.
Except I don’t give them a reading log. Instead, I give them the choice of books from my classroom library and our school’s media center, and I give them time in class to read. Instead of asking them to “punch a clock” by filling out a log, I encourage them to check my books out and take them, but I give them time to read. So they do.
Alfie Kohn wrote an article for the English Journal in 2010 about how to create non-readers and the very first thing on his list was to quantify students’ reading assignments–in other words tell them how much to read and for how long and to write it all down on a worksheet. This is not how Real Readers read. This is not fun at all. Real, life-long readers don’t set a timer or fill out a sheet every time they read. Real Readers carry a book wherever they go, they grab a chapter here or there. They read while they wait for appointments, classes, or the bus. Mandating a number of pages or a number of minutes puts reading on the same level as a chore–something you have to do, which makes it no longer enjoyable.
Miller also supports this claim, as she wrote in a 2010 letter home to parents that was published on Ed Week, “kids who love reading hate those logs. Who wants to curl up at night with your book and your reading log?” Subsequently, those logs do nothing to create new avid readers. Without the “motivation” of a log, reluctant readers quit reading altogether. In fact, Kohn’s argument is that the logs actual create non-readers.
But how do you know if they are really reading, I get asked. I talk to my students about their reading. I conference with them. Most of these conferences are not “official”; I don’t call them up to my desk and ask them interview-type questions. Sometimes I do, but usually I just walk around while they are reading. I pause and ask questions about the book–mostly because I’m interested. Sometimes I want to know what they think of a book I’ve loved. Sometimes I see them reading something I haven’t picked up before. At times, I talk to them on their way into class or if I see them in the hallway.
Each time we read in class, we also respond in a Reader’s Notebook, so I also read and respond to what they write about.
I know my students are reading because they tell me they are. Students who avoid reading are easy to pick out. Those students I spend time talking with about their interests and what they may want to read. They may start and quit ten books, but I know about those books because we talk about them.
Students who read at home do have an advantage over kids who don’t, so of course I encourage kids to read outside of class. But I believe that getting the right books in their hands will have a far greater rate of success than requiring them to fill out a reading log.