There was a time when I was a bad teacher. It’s okay; I can say it, because, fortunately, I learned how to be better. As an English language arts teacher, I was really good at one thing–making kids hate reading. I didn’t intend to kill the joy of reading. I simply didn’t know any better.
Like many traditional teachers, I hid behind old methods–lecture, practice, test, grade and move on. It’s how I was taught to teach. Even worse, I was driven by a curriculum that called for one class novel per year for my 7th graders. Can you imagine a class built on reading and writing, in which kids read one book?
Fortunately, I spent one important summer reflecting on my methods and researching what motivates people along with best practices in the classroom. Among other valuable lessons, I learned how my practices were killing the joys of reading. The next school year, I changed everything. Allow me to share the most important lessons about reading that I ever learned and ways you can teach kids to love books–the greatest gift an educator can give to a child.
6 Ways to Kill the Joy of Reading
1–Clinging to the classroom novel
For years, I’d roll in a cart filled with 30 paperback novels and announce to my middle schoolers, “This is the book we’re going to read this year.” Two seconds later, a hand would shoot up. “Mr. Barnes, I’ve read that already.” Others would chime in that they, too, had already read our one novel. “Well, great,” I’d reply, “we’ll have a few experts. Just be sure you don’t give away the ending.” A chorus of groans followed. So, for most of a grading period, numerous students were disinterested because they were forced to repeat a book that they maybe didn’t love the first time around.
Meanwhile, several others hated the idea of this book, even though they hadn’t read it because they were turned off by the genre. These are only a couple of problems with the classroom novel, which eliminates the most important part of reading–choice. If curriculum mandates a classroom novel, read it together in class and finish it in one week. Then discuss it (more on this in a future post).
2–The “Don’t-read-ahead” directive
My son is reading a marvelous book for class, Holes, by Louis Sachar. You would be hard pressed to find a novel that a 12-year-old boy enjoys more. Unlike most tween boys, my son loves to read (I told him I was excited about Holes, even though it’s a class novel because it’s such a wonderful story). Inspired to read the book, he spent an hour the first night reading aloud with a friend, using FaceTime on his iPod (wow! what a cool activity). Then, the fun ceased. “I want to keep reading,” my son said, “but my teacher told us we can’t read ahead.” My heart sank, when I heard this, as I was reminded how often I, too, snuffed out the joy that comes with reading books for many years with my own “Don’t-read-ahead” directive. In a society filled with nonreaders, why would a teacher ever tell a child to stop reading–especially when he chooses to do so outside of class?
3–Telling kids what they can’t read
I used to tell my kids to leave their magazines, graphic novels, and children’s books in their lockers or at home. (I literally shake my head in disgust, as I recall this.) One of the world’s foremost literacy experts, Stephen Krashen, reports that achievement will increase exponentially if students’ access to books increases. Still, teachers shield kids from reading by eliminating student choice in favor of what they believe is “good” content. When I decided to give students the gift of reading, the first thing I did was tell them that they could read anything they wanted. Yes, even graphic novels. Soon, all of my students carried books with them everywhere. And this is a beautiful thing.
4–Not reading in class daily
“I don’t have time for in-class reading.” Have you ever said this? I used to say it all of the time. If you commit to instilling a love of reading in your students (the most important part of education), then you must make time to read in class–every single day! Two or three times weekly isn’t good enough. The one-week DEAR program isn’t enough. The one-month reading workshop is not sufficient. Readers read daily; it’s this simple. Take at least 10 minutes, 30 during a shared novel, for independent reading in class. “But what if I’m a math teacher?” Then read story problems or articles about real-world math or stories about Pythagoras. The single best lesson I ever learned is this: books are the best teachers. Don’t get your feelings hurt. Are you important? Absolutely. Books are more important, though. Let your students read.
5–Assigning worksheets and book reports
Traditional reading teachers love novel worksheets and book reports. At the end of chapters, they instruct students to identify characters, settings, themes and all sorts of mundane tidbits that have little bearing on what’s important in a story. Meanwhile, readers want to keep reading and/or share their thoughts about the story with their peers. The minutiae of fiction is irrelevant and kills the joy of reading. Have you read the famous S.E. Hinton novel, The Outsiders? Quick, tell me the name of the Soc who Johnny killed. Don’t worry if you can’t (it was Bob) because it simply doesn’t matter. The event is a turning point in the novel and is a tremendous spark for much discussion. Why, though, must students know the name of a minor character? His name simply doesn’t matter.
6–Not celebrating the joy of reading
We celebrate many unimportant things in education–grades, test scores, football wins. You may believe rewards and extrinsic motivators are deleterious to learning, as I do, but don’t confuse a smiley face on a project with celebrating the joy of reading. When a student finished reading a novel in my class, I placed his or her name and the book title on a slide show called, Celebrating Reading. This show ran several times weekly on a television outside of our library for all to see. Soon, students in other classes came to me and asked if they could be added to the slide show because they were proud of reading.
Help kids love books
When I learned how to instill a love of reading in my students, I knew I had become a good teacher; grades and test scores were irrelevant. My students were readers. Many reported at the beginning of the year that they had never voluntarily read a book. Nine months later, most read 25 or more.
Before I left the classroom, I used to say, “Be proud of reading, because it’s life’s greatest skill and something no one can take away from you.”