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Getting teenagers to want to read can seem like an impossible task.

Heck, getting teenagers to not turn to active revolt, bearing protest signs (or at least passive and indifferent expressions) upon the mere mention of reading a book could be considered a victory worth running out of your classroom and shouting down the hallway, leaving your colleagues jealous of your pedagogical superiority.

OK, OK, perhaps that is being a bit ridiculous. But, if you’ve ever stood in front of a room of 27 fifteen-year-olds while trying to get them to understand Dickens, Hawthorne, or Shakespeare, much less appreciate the work, you might agree that this is not much of a stretch (God forbid you try and inspire them to enjoy it).

Reading and literacy instruction has changed.

While there is still validity to teaching the cultural literacy that comes with students from across the country having all read common texts like The Odyssey, Macbeth, and The Great Gatsby, it is finally becoming more widely understood and accepted that “all students deserve to see themselves reflected in the books they read, as well as to learn about the lives of those different from themselves”. Rudine Sims Bishop has been asserting this for more than 30 years, and both national and state standards are finally catching up.

Teachers must acknowledge the role that traditional education has played in killing the love of reading in students. As Kelly Gallagher puts forth in his book Readicide, most young children love to read and are excited about checking books out at the library. But, after years of being forced to analyze and pick apart the books they were assigned to read in school, most find reading to be a chore associated with checklists, strategies, and tests.

In elementary and junior high, one of our writers really enjoyed reading. His books of choice were either science fiction books or “girl” books. Often getting made fun of by other students, he started hiding the books behind book covers he crafted out of construction paper. Eventually, he just stopped reading. 

Depressed and lonely his senior year, his AP English IV teacher empowered him to find escape through reading, finding perspective in reading about those whose situations were worse, comfort in those who had overcome, and escape in the fantastical. He made it his ambition to impart his newfound love of reading in others as a high school English teacher.

If our goal is to create literate, critical citizens who are life-long readers in a digital world of soundbites, trending videos, and 280 character tweets, we are going to have to change how we approach and teach literacy in our classrooms.

Reader’s Workshop

A practical approach to teaching and encouraging literacy in the secondary classroom can be taken from our colleagues in the primary grades. Elementary teachers have been using the reader’s workshop model for years. A detailed break down of the process and key features can be found in the recent edition of Educational Leadership’s article “Making Reading Workshop Work.”

The concept is pretty simple, but it does require intentional planning. Start with a mini-lesson (roughly 10 minutes) that uses a shared text to teach and practice a specific reading strategy. After guided practice, give students time (about 30 minutes or so) to work with this skill using the text they have selected (whether it is an independent novel, in book groups, or working with a partner). 

End the workshop with time to reflect on what they read and the skill that was practiced. This reflection can be done as a whole class, in small groups, or with a partner. Switching up can help avoid the monotony that can sometimes come with routines. Finally, encourage students to talk about when/where/what/how they will read before the next scheduled reading workshop 

Another way to switch up the reflection time could be to have students write their reflection in a letter to another student reading a similar book. Or, students could post to a discussion board. One teacher actually created giant posters on the wall that looked like phone screens and students wrote out tweets and commented on each other’s tweets.

Be creative and have fun with it. Make it your goal that your students will all have read something they really liked by the end of the year. You may not be able to get them all to love reading, but maybe they won’t leave your classroom saying that they hate reading (or graduate saying that they never actually read a whole book).

The authors of the reading workshop article, Sonja Cherry-Paul, Colleen Cruz, and Mary Ehrenworth, emphasize the importance of teaching reading skills and encouraging student choice: “Reading changes us, in enigmatic but tangible ways, especially through the creation of empathy.”

As ELAR teachers, we are helping our students build skills that will shape how they interpret the world around them and how they communicate their views to others. Empathy cannot be taught, but it is a skill we can intentionally foster.

In part 2 of this topic, we will look at the importance of student-selected novels and how to help students find what they want to read.

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