Opinion

What’s Really Killing Students’ Love of Reading?

Another day, another claim that teachers are killing students’ love of books. This time, it’s assigned summer reading that’s done the trick. Carolyn Ross, writing for The Millions, says:

“Summer reading assignments and reading quizzes and book reports don’t teach our students how to be readers. They teach them that reading is a school-centered activity. That it is a chore. That they aren’t good at it if they can’t remember insignificant plot points. These assignments set students up to cheat, or to fail, and always to regard reading as a drag.”

Listen, I’m not stupid enough to think that teachers can’t ruin a student’s reading experience, but I’m not about to concede that I’m making it happen simply by assigning reading to incoming students outside the strict confines of the school year. What Ross describes above isn’t the result of assigned reading, summer or otherwise, but the outcome of reducing the reading experience to little more than a multiple-choice quiz or a timed essay. Ross’ school district mandates that summer reading assignments conclude with something called an Accelerated Reader quiz. Accelerated Reader is a software program that assigns point values to books, usually based on their length and complexity. Students receive points for correctly answering plot-centric multiple choice questions. It is, unequivocally, a terrible basis upon which to judge students’ engagement with a book.

Imagine you’ve been assigned and read Of Mice and Men, moved by George and Lennie’s pursuit of their dream, frightened by Curley’s tyrannical grip on his wife, and angered by Steinbeck’s ending. It made you think about hope and perseverance and mercy and control. You want to talk – or maybe shout – about these things and hear what others have to say. But no. What you get instead is (and this is an actual question from Accelerated Reader’s Of Mice and Men quiz):

George thought he and Lennie would get the job if _____.
A. the other workers could see how strong they were
B. he could think of a good lie to explain their presence at the ranch
C. the boss could see Lennie work before he heard him speak
D. he could keep Lennie out of sight until the boss was gone

Think about the best reading experience you ever had in school. Then think about what you did with the book in class once you had read it. Did it look anything like that quiz question? I’m guessing not. In fact, I would wager that no matter how much you actually liked the book, if the payoff for your efforts was something like an AR quiz, it marred the experience.

Ross sees summer reading assignments as inextricably married to AR-like assessments for reasons I don’t think she really makes clear. Her district has a bad policy in place, and I can understand her frustration with summer reading as it must be executed where she teaches. But summer reading isn’t her real problem. A bad assessment plan dictated by bad policy is her problem. She, other teachers in her district, and parents of students subjected to the AR program for any significant portion of their grade should send emails, attend meetings, and pester administrators until the policy can be revisited and revised in the best interests of students. What they shouldn’t do is throw the baby out with the bathwater by mistaking bad assessment for bad assignments.

Giving students some choice in what they read, as Ross suggests, can really help grease the reading wheels for students, but we needn’t abandon more formalized classroom activities to aid their enjoyment of books – even assigned books. My own experience tells me that some students will love the readings I assign, some will tolerate them, and some with actively loathe them. Hand any 30 people the same book and you’ll likely get similar results. What often shapes a student’s reading experience with an assigned book has less to do with how much he adored what he read and more to do with the teacher’s approach to the book in the classroom. If a student feels that his response to the book is what’s valued and he’s given a chance to work through that response a less restrictive way, he will likely come away appreciative of, if not in love with, the given book, even if there is an essay to write or a quiz to take along the way.

Ross writes:

You read for its own sake. To learn, to travel, to be spooked or heartbroken or elated. To grow. And when you do this, when reading becomes something that you authentically value, you become a better reader and writer without even trying.

I agree. But I would argue that the authentic value she writes about can be found in a classroom, while studying an assigned book. Not automatically, of course. We must not reduce books to their Spark Notes pages. We must not make reading about points and page numbers and plot recall. We must not forget that, in reading, emotion must precede analysis and explication.

And we must not stop giving students the chance to explore books on their own, without the watchful, often nerve-wracking eyes of a teacher upon them. Summer is a great gulf, and in crossing, students too often drift from thinking about much outside of their own narrow windows into the world. Summer reading gives them a chance to do that. It’s not perfect, but I’ll take my chances with putting a book in their hands.

If you’re curious (and if you have school-age kids, you should be) about Accelerated Reader, take a look at their website and ask their teachers if and how their schools use the program.

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About

Josh Corman splits his slivers of free time between his incredibly patient wife, his wildly energetic son, the Kentucky Wildcats, and a tall stack of books. He also teaches high school English to about 120 gifted lunatics. His novels, short stories, and a memoir have been featured on his computer screen and in various desk drawers.