by Jarred Amato
As a high school English teacher, I constantly find myself creating analogies to help my students comprehend confusing concepts. (I’m also a sucker for alliteration, but that’s beside the point).
And so, during a recent conference with a student, a member of the Maplewood freshman football team, and his father, a former athlete himself, I attempted to convey the importance of reading in terms they would understand.
“Reading is a lot like exercising,” I began. “You see, the more you work out and lift weights, the stronger you become. The more you run, the faster you get.”
I could tell my hook had worked.
“Well, the same is true with reading. The more you read, the better you get at it.”
Heads nodded in agreement.
“So, that’s why I’m pushing your son to read so much in class and at home. He’s already improved his reading level by more than a year since August. But, we’ve still got work to do.”
The father shook my hand, thanked me for my passion and support, and promised that his son would be reading for at least twenty minutes each night.
As educators and non-educators alike discuss ways to improve our students’ reading scores, I want to remind us that sometimes the best solutions are, in fact, the simplest. There is no magic formula, special sauce, or computer program that will turn our reluctant, struggling readers into confident, proficient ones.
Instead, it requires that we trust and embrace the process of developing and nurturing lifelong readers. If teachers and leaders commit to creating a culture of reading in their schools, the results will inevitably follow. And by results, I’m not just talking test scores, although those will improve too. Research shows that students who identify as readers are significantly happier, less stressed, more empathetic, and ultimately far more prepared to succeed in this crazy thing we call life.
Before I dig deeper, I want to pause for a pop-quiz. (Don’t panic; there are no wrong answers!)
Here’s my question: How many of the following statements do you agree with?
1. I consider myself a “reader” and see the immense value in reading.
2. I read a variety of texts and for a variety of purposes.
3. As such, I am reading something all the time.
4. I generally only read about things that I deem interesting or worthwhile.
5. I enjoy sharing and discussing what I read with friends and colleagues.
6. I loved to read, and read a lot, during my childhood.
7. I consider reading a hobby of mine.
Now, I’m going to assume that you answered “yes” to the majority of the above statements. In fact, I’d bet that a lot of you, like me, identified with all seven.
However, what if we asked today’s students the same questions? How many would they agree with? For far too many, the answer would be one or two, if any. And through no fault of their own.
There’s no question that selling today’s students (and adults, for that matter) on books is harder than it’s ever been. We’re up against a lot of competition, most notably from the smartphone.
However, rather than admitting defeat to the likes of Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Netflix, and Xbox360, educators have a responsibility to show students that reading can be far more enjoyable, and beneficial, than any iPhone app or video game.
When my ninth graders unplugged from technology for 24 hours last semester, the results were overwhelmingly positive. Hours usually spent in front of screens were replaced with exercise, sleep, family time, and yes, even reading.
Our #PanthersUnplugged event was just one small way we are working to create a culture of reading at Maplewood High School. The first annual reading marathon, in which more than 40 students and teachers read consecutively from 2:30 to 10:30 (with small breaks for snacks and prizes every hour) on a Friday evening, was another.
Most of the work, however, is happening inside classrooms day in and day out. Our long-term goal is for all 1,000+ students to self-identify as readers, and to see the lifelong value in reading. We want all students to leave high school with not only the ability to read well, but also with the confidence and desire to one day read to their future children before bed each night.
Of course, we have a lot of work to get there. Approximately 90% of our freshmen entered high school reading below grade level, with nearly 60% reading at a sixth-grade level or lower. There are many reasons for this tragedy, but here’s a big one: too many schools have taken the joy out of reading. We’ve turned off our skilled readers, and done nothing to encourage our struggling ones.
Let me ask you this: How many of you would enjoy coming to school and being told that your only reading would be a passage from a TCAP prep book? And when you finished reading it (or maybe just skimming it, since that’s what your teacher told you to do), you got the privilege of answering biased multiple-choice questions?
Or, how about being told that the only novel you could read was the one that your teacher picked out because he read it as a kid? Never mind that it’s above your reading level and completely irrelevant to your life. And, since you’re not allowed to take the books home, you have to listen to your teacher read aloud one chapter a day while the fidgety kids in class constantly interrupt him? If you’re lucky, you’ll get through one book a quarter.
Should it be any surprise, then, that so many of our students have grown to hate reading? Years of “teaching to the test” and “drill and kill” have killed any enthusiasm they may have had. Furthermore, because students are now so turned off to reading, their reading level has remained stagnant, and often times, regressed.
Therefore, our first step is to earn back our students’ trust. We have to prove to them that not all reading is bad, and that starts with two things: time and choice.
Students need to read independently for at least 20 to 30 minutes every day, with no exceptions. In the beginning, teachers may start with 10 minutes (the same way you would start by running a mile before trying to run a marathon), and then add time as students’ reading stamina increases. Without this consistency, reading will never become a habit.
Students also need to have choice in what they read during this time if we want to increase their motivation. Otherwise, students will still see reading as a chore, not a hobby. Additionally, if we assign one book to all, skilled readers will find ways to skim or Sparknote it, while struggling readers will have trouble accessing it at all.
Therefore, as teachers, our focus should be on connecting students with books they don’t want to put down. Depending on their interests and passions (as well as their reading level), that book is going to be different for each student.
In order to get students excited about reading, here are five other tips for teachers of all grade levels:
* Be a reading role model. How can we expect students to love and appreciate reading if their teachers don’t? It’s essential that teachers practice what they preach. We should be reading alongside students, not sitting at our desk grading papers or working on our laptop. When we’re not reading a book ourselves, we should be conferencing with students about their books, making recommendations, and checking in on students’ progress. Every day should be a celebration of literature.
* Create a nurturing reading environment in your classroom. This includes an accessible and inviting library, absolute silence, appropriate lighting, and comfortable seating (if students read better on the floor, let them). If we treat reading time as sacred, students will too.
* Help students set personalized reading goals. Reading should not be a competition. However, most students respond well to a personal goal, whether it’s to read a certain number books or words, improve their reading level by a certain number of grades, or finish an entire series by the same author. Teachers should help students set these goals, and then check in frequently with them about their progress.
* Celebrate reading. We glorify athletes with pep rallies, yet our readers tend to walk through the halls virtually unnoticed. That needs to change. We have to be better about acknowledging and appreciating these students. Often times the only rewards that are needed are more books and more time to read.
* Be patient and positive. Remember that it’s a marathon, not sprint, and that it’s never too late for a student to become a reader. Continue to put good books in their hands, and eventually one will stick.
To be clear, 30 minutes of choice independent reading per day will not solve our literacy problem by itself. There are other instructional strategies that schools must implement in order to significantly improve students’ reading and writing abilities, but I believe that this is a great (and cost-effective) place to start.
In closing, I hope this post sparks dialogue in your school, community, or household. I would also love to hear your thoughts and feedback, whether it’s through Twitter (@jarredamato), email (firstname.lastname@example.org), or in person here in Nashville, Tennessee. Happy reading!
Jarred Amato is in his seventh year of teaching in East Nashville. He taught seventh and eighth grade English at Jere Baxter Middle Prep for six years and is now in his first year at Maplewood High School. Jarred is currently a Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow, and during the 2014-15 school year, he participated in the Tennessee SCORE Educator Fellowship and the MNPS Teacher Leadership Institute.