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How to Get Kids to Read for Fun
An overemphasis on analytical skills can make reading a joyless task.
The percentage of students who read for pleasure has declined dramatically in recent years. While there are multiple causes, one likely reason is a well-intentioned but misguided approach to teaching literature.
Recent data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is alarming—and not just because of historic declines in reading and math scores. The thirteen-year-olds who took the test were also asked about their reading habits, including how often they read for pleasure.
The percentage who said they read on their own “almost every day” was down to a new low of 14%, a figure that was almost half of what it was in 2012 (27%). And the percentage who reported they “never or hardly ever” read for pleasure had increased to 31%, up from 22% in 2012.
No doubt smartphones and other devices, and concomitant shrinking attention spans, have a lot to do with this trend. The pandemic may be a factor too. But as some commentators have argued, it’s likely there’s another cause—one we have more control over: Schools have been giving students isolated bits of text rather than letting them sink their teeth into engaging novels, and they’ve prioritized teaching analytical reading skills over allowing kids to immerse themselves in a good story.
The Role of the Common Core
Writing in the New York Times, Pamela Paul identifies this as a problem in middle and high school, where, she says, English class is “often a misery.” She blames the situation largely on the Common Core State Standards, adopted by most states about ten years ago.
The root of the problem, in Paul’s view, is the CCSS’s requirement that students read more nonfiction, with the proportion rising to 70% by high school. That, she says, has led English teachers to try to cover more literature by using excerpts and snippets. That may well be true, but both Paul and those English teachers have overlooked the fact that the 70% figure applies not just to English class but to the curriculum as a whole.
Another aspect of the CCSS may be at least as important: its emphasis on “close reading.” Although its authors didn’t necessarily mean that literacy instruction should consist solely of painstakingly picking apart one or two paragraphs of text, that’s often how it’s been interpreted in practice.
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The problem isn’t limited to middle and high school. Children’s book author Katherine Marsh, writing in the Atlantic, makes many of the same points Paul does, and one of her examples is a Common Core third-grade standard on distinguishing literal from non-literal language. Marsh observes that one way to help students understand the distinction would be to read them one of the humorous books about Amelia Bedelia, the famously literal-minded fictional maid.
But Marsh cites a lesson designed to align with this standard that gives children just a one-paragraph excerpt, in which Amelia Bedelia gets the “spots” out of her employer’s polka-dotted dress by excising them with a pair of scissors. The paragraph is followed by several dispiriting comprehension questions of the type used on standardized tests.
As Marsh observes, this kind of lesson is supposed to teach close reading skills while also catering to kids’ supposedly limited reading stamina. In addition to blaming CCSS, Marsh fingers another education-world acronym: NCLB, for No Child Left Behind. That federal legislation placed enormous emphasis on reading test scores and led to instruction that often mirrors the format of the tests.
The Problem Goes Deeper
No doubt both NCLB and the CCSS have each helped to drain the joy from reading, albeit unintentionally. But they didn’t create the problem, at least at the elementary level. Although read-alouds from chapter books and “thematic” teaching used to be more common than they are now, elementary schools have long tried to use brief snippets of simple text as vehicles for teaching reading comprehension skills.
In an article published in American Educator in 2003, only a year after NCLB went into effect, commentator Kate Walsh pointed out that widely used reading textbooks consisted largely of short passages with little actual content and put supposed skills like “sequencing” in the foreground.
And in 2008—two years before the CCSS was promulgated—an author of popular children’s poetry books, Mary Ann Hoberman, complained that she didn’t like it “when a four-line poem of mine is in a teacher’s manual, and there are three pages on how to use it across the curriculum, and it’s analyzed to death. That’s not what poetry is for. It’s for joy.”
Nor is this a problem that’s confined to the United States. A study done in England and published in 2018 observed that teachers there often give poorer adolescent readers “short, simplified texts” and expect them to “analyze every part in a slow laborious read-through.”
The main justification for that approach, at least in the U.S., is that it will boost comprehension as reflected in test scores. But, given that reading scores have been stagnant or declining for the past 25 years, there’s little evidence to support that justification. And the study done in England suggests that simply enabling students to enjoy good novels can provide a more powerful boost to comprehension.
Boosting Comprehension—and Enjoyment
Working with a sample of about 350 12- and 13-year-olds who were average or poor readers, the researchers had teachers read aloud “two whole challenging novels at a faster pace than usual.” At the end of 12 weeks, all students had made about eight months of progress on average, as measured by standardized reading comprehension tests—and the poor readers had made an astounding 16 months of progress.
What’s more, students clearly enjoyed the experience. When the allotted time for the daily read-aloud was over, they would clamor for more. Questions like “Can we speed read so we can finish the book?” and “Can we just read and not do any questions?” were typical.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, it’s possible that students’ emotional engagement in the material helped them retain the vocabulary they needed to understand the passages on the reading test. And that vocabulary, along with the realization that reading can be fun, could well lead them to engage in more reading for pleasure.
I’ve observed this phenomenon myself in other contexts, and I’ve heard about it from educators. I’ve seen teachers read aloud from engaging novels—even, on one occasion, the rather challenging Jane Eyre—and watched students of various ages become mesmerized. Teachers have told me students often want to read more by the same author on their own. And it’s not just novels. If a read-aloud gets kids interested in a topic like the American Revolution, they want to read more about that.
But many teachers have been trained to believe that the only way kids will learn to read—and to enjoy reading—is for them to choose books that have been determined to be at their reading level and read them independently.
One school district leader I recently interviewed for a podcast I’m hosting told me how wedded teachers are to that belief—and how mistaken it can be. Like an increasing number of districts across the country, Pentucket, Massachusetts, has adopted a different kind of literacy curriculum—one that relies more on read-alouds and class discussion to build students’ knowledge of the world and vocabulary.
Brent Conway, the district’s assistant superintendent, told me some teachers were horrified when they were told that the usual 20 minutes of independent reading time would no longer be in the schedule. That’s how kids learn to love reading, they protested.
“I got news for you,” Conway says he told them. “Half of your kids despise that time.”
As both Paul and Marsh observe, when students get immersed in a narrative, they not only enjoy it, they enter a different world—one that expands their horizons and enables them to connect with characters whose lives may be very different from their own. Another educator I interviewed for the podcast, Kyair Butts, saw that for himself.
Butts’ district had recently adopted a knowledge-building curriculum that had his sixth-graders read the novel Out of the Dust. Butts was dubious that his students—Black kids in inner-city Baltimore—would be interested in a story about “a 13-year-old white girl from Depression-era Oklahoma.” But, he says, “when students care about a character, and when they realize that Billie Jo lost her mom and her baby brother, they are hooked. They want to keep reading.”
I’m confident that all teachers want their students to feel that way. They’ve just been misled about what it takes to create that feeling.
This post originally appeared on Forbes.com in a slightly different form.