“I don’t read.”
Whether I’m teaching English or test prep, I hear this statement from students again and again. When I find the rare student who delights in reading, I’m thrilled. But why the near-universal resistance to reading?
We could look into the societal and technological factors that contribute to it, but these external factors are largely beyond our control. Besides, there are a few more practical questions we can consider.
1) Why does it matter if students read?
2) What can we do about it?
The benefits of reading are manyfold. They range from the eminently practical to the obscurely big-picture.
Writing remains an essential skill for a successful professional career. Students must learn to unravel their own thoughts and articulate them clearly and succinctly. Learning to write well, however, is a challenge. Memorizing the structural aspects of a paragraph or overall essay is easy enough, but fine-tuning one’s grasp of vocabulary (including its conventional usage) and sentence structure is more elusive. Some things are learned best by sheer osmosis: read enough books, read enough sentences, and you’ll eventually develop your own voice. Students consciously, or unconsciously, mimic what they see and hear and read.
At the very least, most students will face the SAT or ACT before they move beyond their high school careers. Some will encounter the ISEE, the HSPT, or the SSAT as they transition to high school. Whether digesting a math word problem or working through a reading comprehension passage, students rely on skills accrued by practice and more practice. Students often prepare for these tests in the preceding months, but good reading habits developed over the course of years give students the foundation they need to succeed. A student who has read regularly will pick up instinctively on the nuances of reading passages, understand what sounds grammatically “correct,” and interpret word problems.
Reading exposes us to other perspectives, to other worlds, to our own history, to what is, to the possibility of what could be. Exercising our imaginations spurs creativity and, by extension, innovation. In today’s ever-changing world, creativity is essential.
How can we encourage reading?
Students regularly tell us, “It was boring” when asked what they thought about a book. So how do we help students find the joy in reading?
Emphasize Quality over Quantity
Tell a student to read a hundred pages a day, and they’ll skim the pages at best, skip the exercise entirely at worst. Why? It’s a task, and it’s an overwhelming one at that. A student will benefit more from reading 5 pages a day well than a hundred sloppily. We can’t influence the assignments students receive in school, but if we’re encouraging outside reading or asking students to examine a text more closely, we can start small. If a student has a fifty pages to read for school, ask them to choose a passage no longer than two pages to examine more in depth.
A surefire way to ensure you’ll be bored with a text is not to think about it. Imagine tha you read the lines, “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Hamlet is telling Horatio that he hasn’t thought of everything. So what? This is the question that we so often ignore: so what? Students breeze their way through passages without pausing to consider the events, without taking note of anything that stood out to them, and without contemplating the “why” of the text.
We can encourage students to check in with themselves after each paragraph or after every chapter. What do they think about what they read? How do they feel about it? What are one or two things they noticed that they feel are significant, and why? Was there anything that surprised them? Alarmed them? Made them smile? The more a student engages with a text, the more it means to them. The more they notice, the most interesting the text can seem.
For many students, the books they read have no connection to their daily lives. The existential dilemmas of a Danish prince who must contend with the duplicity of his uncle and mother is not a situation that many students can relate to. Asking students to explain how they feel about characters opens avenues to forming connections. If they like the character, what do they like about them? If they dislike them, what do they dislike? If a student can connect with a character, they’ve taken strides towards connecting to the book.
The themes of a book often apply to today’s world, no matter when the book was written. The theme of society’s obsession with outward appearances can describe the experiences of Anna in Anna Karenina as well as today’s world of social media. Students’ understanding of their world not only informs their understanding of Anna’s world, but also gives the book meaning in their own lives. They can examine the relevancy of Tolstoy’s message now as well as then.
What can we do to help?
AJ’s English tutors are experts at asking leading questions to not only guide students into a deeper understanding of the text, but also help them find the connections that make a text resonate with them. Whether we’re working with an acronym such as OPERATICA (Observe, Predict, Evaluate, React, Ask, Translate, Infer, Connect, Analyze) to assist with annotation or guiding students organically through translating their initial impressions into something deeper, we believe in teaching students the process, not the answer. We’re interested in a student’s ideas and where they can take them, not with our own interpretation of the text. Our goal is to empower our students to master a text on their own and to inspire them to keep reading.