Teaching Students Who Hate Reading

Reading was fun until teachers started assigning books and I no longer got to choose what to read.

I haven’t read a book for fun since elementary school.

I teach the dreaded, required college composition course, and every semester my class fills with jaded 18- and 19-year-olds who wish they were anywhere but in this class. Most are not humanities majors; in fact, I’m lucky if 5 out of 60 students say they enjoy English. So how to teach students who already hate reading and writing?

I start with a literacy narrative.

Literacy narratives tell the story of a person’s reading and writing history. I tell the students they must pick a specific focus for their literacy narrative (a thesis about their literacy) and use their personal experiences as evidence. This is a useful assignment for several reasons. First, students tend to find it easier to write about themselves than to write about more academic topics. Because of this, I can introduce drafting and revising techniques while the writing is still simple, so they’re experienced when we start more complex writing.

But also, perhaps more importantly, it lets students vent, and in venting, they’re able to approach future reading and writing assignments with less resentfulness. Typically, more than half of my students decide to write about how they once loved reading or writing (usually in elementary school), but started hating it in high school (sometimes middle school, sometimes they blame accelerated reader).

Whatever caused the rift in their reading pleasure, their narratives read much the same:

I remember the first time I picked up Junie B. Jones (or Captain Underpants, or Harry Potter). I loved how fun the books were to read, and I identified with the main character. I read every book in the series, and begged my mom and dad for more.

After elaborating on their blissful elementary school reading, they turn to high school, or whenever they began hating reading:

And then Mrs. X assigned Y novel in high school, and my joy of reading stopped. I’d never read anything so boring.

Sometimes the book that made them hate reading is Great Expectations, or Pride and Prejudice, or one unlucky teen had to read The Brothers Karamazov in tenth grade. Sometimes it’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, or The Iliad, or any of Shakespeare. The list goes on and on, but here’s the thing: I love all these books. I grit my teeth when a student calls Jane Eyre boring, The Iliad pointless, or Shakespeare incomprehensible. You didn’t even give these books a chance! I want to scream. But at the same time, I kind of understand their perspective. These texts are difficult. But I don’t even think difficulty is the problem. I think the problem is choice. Teenagers are budding adults. They want to practice making their own choices, and rebel when they can’t.

In my own high school English classes, I rarely read the required material. I remember being assigned The Scarlet Letter, and instead of reading it, I went home and read Jane Eyre. My reading level was high, but when I picked up a book, I did it for joy first and homework second, if at all. That changed in college. I read all the required reading, and often loved it. That’s how I discovered The Awakening, Charles Dickens, and so much more. I no longer separated reading with pleasure with reading for school, though I still had my own side reading projects, mainly, science fiction and fantasy novels.

So why didn’t my students turn into readers despite required reading, like I did?

My students tend to be very polite. One problem may be that they didn’t rebel enough in high school. They followed the rules and read the required reading, and never anything else. And because of that, maybe they learned to associate reading with homework instead of pleasure.

But the problem is probably more complex than that. One of my high school English teacher friends says YA should be taught instead of the classics. She wants to create future readers, she says, so she assigns Twilight and The Hunger Games. Others say that the classics need to be taught in fun, approachable ways, and that reading classics is necessary for critical thinking and will be expected in college. These teachers have students create Shakespearean memes, Tweets, and blogs.

I’ve always thought if I taught high school English, I would do a mix of current and classic reading, and let students have some choice in books. Maybe have some themes for them to choose from: The World in Ruins, Kissing and Making Up, Sticking Swords into So-called Monsters. Then they could vote on classics and contemporaries to read for each theme: 1984 or Brave New World; Station Eleven or Parable of the Sower. Maybe with some choice they would enjoy the books more, but maybe this is wishful thinking and they would still hate reading. Or maybe high school teachers have little choice in what students can read. I don’t know.

But what I do know is that my students come to college loathing something I love, and are embittered about taking English classes. Since I don’t teach a literature class, I don’t have an opportunity to change their hate of reading, but I do try and help with the bitterness by assigning the literacy narrative, and giving space in class to talk about reading and writing insecurities and issues. While it’s good to be polite, they also need to know it’s okay to express their feelings and opinions. Maybe in that way I can encourage them to try reading once again.

Why do you think so many new adults hate reading? What’s the solution? Did you ever hate reading and learn to love it later? If so, what changed?

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