teen reading, reading, kid reading, student reading

Motivating Students to Read

August 17, 2010 06:30 AM
by Liz Colville
The reading curriculum in the U.S. has been criticized for emphasizing a standard list of classics, and for catering too heavily to female readers. What are some practical solutions?

When Students Choose the Books

In a 2009 profile in The New York Times, Lorrie McNeill, a middle school teacher from Jonesboro, Ga., explained that last year she implemented a new method of teaching literacy that put the assigning in the hands of the students. Instead of assigning a classic such as Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” McNeill allowed the students to choose their own books to read.

Although it’s a refreshing idea, it’s by no means a standardized one. The Times noted that the Boston public school system is “moving in the opposite direction” by “developing a core curriculum that will designate specific books for sixth grade and is considering assigned texts for each grade through the 12th.” But its director of literacy, Joan Dabrowski, says teachers “would still be urged to give students some choices.”

For McNeill, the idea stemmed from her own dissatisfaction with her reading requirements growing up, particularly her “vivid disliking” of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain. She noticed similar feelings in her own students. “I just never felt that they were as excited about reading as I wanted them to be,” she told The Times.

Background: Getting boys to read

But McNeill still encountered some challenges, particularly with her male students, a trend echoed by other teachers and education experts. According to Peg Tyre’s 2008 book, “The Trouble With Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and What Parents & Educators Must Do,” “Boys are expelled from preschool nearly five times more often than girls; they are four times more likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit disorders or learning disabilities; and they lag behind girls in reading and writing (a gap that widens as they progress through high school),” Good magazine’s Anne Trubek explained in an article called “Boy Trouble.”

Important and enduring mental processes happen when kids read. An article on Oxford Learning’s Web site explored the pluses of reading further: “Reading a book is like a debriefing for media-saturated children. It helps them be able to focus on a single thing at a time.” In addition, reading “teaches the importance of seeing connections and new meanings” and “teaches children how to empathize with others.”

According to Trubek, Tyre suggests that the modern reading curriculum may not be instilling these skills in everyone. The curriculum is “largely overseen and taught by women with reading assignments skewed towards traditional girl-friendly texts.” Trubek mentions hopeful alternatives to this problem, including Getting Boys To Read, which features practical blog entries, and Guys Read, an online literacy program founded by children’s book author Jon Scieszka. Guys Read aims to conquer the problem of reading assignments that “center on emotions and feelings,” Trubek says, and “help boys find stuff they like to read,” as Scieszka puts it.

Opinion & Analysis: How to build a love of reading?

New York Times book critic Motoko Rich wrote in the Times blog ArtsBeat that McNeill’s strategy—helping students grow to love reading by choosing their own books—may not always pan out. “[I]t is not clear that all students who begin to enjoy reading will eventually read more challenging or classic works,” Rich said. She then asked readers to submit comments on how they developed a love of reading. Did it happen at school, or “at home, through the guidance of parents, siblings and friends?”

Rich hinted at an important tool for student reading: parents. As Dustin Wax wrote for Lifehack in the article “Build a Reading Family: How to Share Reading with Your Kids,” family life can—and should—play a big role in a child’s relationship with books. Wax advised parents to take kids to the library, read together, “[a]sk for a commitment,” “[d]on’t rush them,” “[a]im high” and “[l]imit screen time.” The article also advised parents to encourage older kids to read to younger kids, and to get familiar with book awards like the Newberry Medal for ideas on what books to buy.

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