As someone who’s mother used to tell her, “It’s a beautiful day. Get your nose out of your book, and go outside,” I don’t quite understand the reluctant reader. Okay, I’ll admit it. I don’t. I understand not wanting to read something you’re forced to read (Moby Dick), I understand not having time to read (writing grad school papers), I understand needing a break from reading (yeah, sometimes I do). But I just don’t understand not ever wanting to read. Because I don’t understand it, as a language arts literacy teacher, I’ve become a bit fascinated by it.
What I’ve learned is that most people assume boys are reluctant readers and not girls. This is not true. What I’ve learned is that most people assume a reluctant reader in middle school won’t ever learn to love reading. This is also not true. What I’ve learned is that most people assume reluctant readers are struggling readers. This is also not true.
I’ve seen both boys and girls not want to read. And I’ve seen both boys and girls devour books. A love of reading is not tied to gender. I’ve seen reluctant readers become full fledged readers with their noses in books by the end of the year, and I’ve seen reluctant readers still be reluctant readers by the end of the year. I’ve seen struggling readers embrace books and become better readers. I’ve seen high achieving students and strong readers reject reading. Being a reader depends on the individual. It truly does. It doesn’t depend on gender or academic track. One size doesn’t fit all, and there’s no magic formula when it comes to reading – with one exception: choice.
As a language arts literacy teacher, I assign books to kids. It’s what I do. It’s what the curriculum and the board of education expect me to do. However, I believe strongly in the power of choice, and so each day there is a space for free choice independent reading a la Nancie Atwell. I teach my reading comprehension strategies through the students’ free choice books. It works because the kids are reading something they’re interested in. Mostly.
Mostly because most of the class is enjoying the reading time they have. Many of my students who don’t read say they have no time to read. Their day is so scheduled between school, sports, sports, activities, and religious instruction (and, yes, sports is doubled because many of my students play on multiple teams in one season, so they go from practice to practice) by the time they get home they only have time to do homework, eat, and go to bed (not necessarily in that order). Given a space where reading is valued, they willingly and happily read.
But this isn’t about those kids; it’s about the kids who even with time and space don’t want to read. They don’t like it. They won’t do it. So what about them?
I will preach once again about teachers and librarians reading YA books. I can’t put the right book in a kid’s hands if I don’t know the book or the kid (you also need to form connections with your students, which is so basic to me that I forget to mention it). So I read a lot. I have a lot of titles at my disposal. And now I have a reluctant reader standing in my classroom library staring at me, challenging me to make him/her read.
And so I ask, “What was the last book you really enjoyed reading?” Sometimes I get a shrug. Sometimes I get a stare. (Not to worry, I usually stare back waiting for an answer.) Sometimes a get a stare and then a shrug. Sometimes I get a shy smile (or even a smirk) followed by a title from early elementary school. Once I have some data (even that title from early elementary school gives me something), I can get started.
I’ve found reluctant readers don’t necessarily like a long book or a book with tiny words crammed together on a page. They do judge books by their covers (but then again, don’t we all). I find my female reluctant readers usually like what has come to be known as “chick lit.” The Georgia Nicholson series by Louis Rennison can be a place to start. Sonya Somes is another place to go. And depending on the age and attitude of the district, Ellen Hopkins is another good starter. Somes and Hopkins write in verse. There’s a lot of emotion, and the reader can connect with the characters, but there’s not a lot of print to bog them down. My boys tend to like anything with action or nonfiction. I’ve found that the Darren Shan’s books are very popular as are Gary Paulsen’s.
However, very recently, I discoved Patrick Carman’s Skeleton Creek series. The books are thin – under 200 pages. There’s a lot of action and mystery and some suspense thrown in for good measure. They have a really slick look to them, appearing to be a journal complete with a text that mimics handwriting. And then there are the video clips that accompany the text. Carman relies on visual literacy to help tell the story. There are about 8 different video clips, which add to the suspense and move the story along.
As an adult reader, I thought it was cool. I was also annoyed that I had to stop reading, go to my computer, type in a URL and password, and sit and watch the clip. However, what about my students who are digital natives, who have strong visual literacy skills? What about my reluctant reader who may not want to sit with a book for an hour or more on end? The clips, I believe, lend themselves to the modern teen, and the book interfaces with the way kids read now. It also provides a natural break for the reluctant reader. It gives him/her permission to put the book down.
I think Skeleton Creek will become a favorite with my reluctant reader. Right now, I’m just waiting and watching to see what happens.
I wish there were a hard and fast formula to get kids to read. For now, I will keep reading, keep searching for series, and keep looking at new forms of text.
Until next time, see YA.