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Let students read what they want

favicon Common Core is here, which many say is the death knell of independent reading. Teachers are worried that they’ll have to throw away their classroom libraries. Close reading of short texts, they say, will replace full-length novels.

I say that it doesn’t have to be this way — that it’s not an either-or.

If Common Core succeeds, then reading will spread across the curriculum. Science, social studies, and Math teachers will include more informational text in their classes. It might be true that English teachers will introduce more short nonfiction. But if that is done well, there will still be room for students to read what they want.

Especially at the ninth grade, and especially with students who haven’t read a book for years, we must encourage our students to be readers. That’s not going to happen exclusively with short, nonfiction, teacher-assigned texts. No ninth grader is going to become a voracious reader after his teacher assigns him The Gettysburg Address (though it’s a nice speech).

That’s why I think English teachers should not rebel against Common Core (there’s nothing wrong with the new standards) but rather make sure to preserve independent reading as a major component of their curriculum. At some schools, this might take some creativity — like shifting independent reading from English class to Advisory — but it can and needs to be done.

In my experience, interest in reading, or lack thereof, among ninth graders is pretty absolute. If students get to choose what they read, they love it. If they don’t, then they don’t. Simple as that.

So what’s wrong with letting students, as part of their school experience, to read what they want?

Here are a few books that I recently got from a DonorsChoose grant. They’re among the most popular titles, particularly for my Latina/o students. I’m a huge fan of A Place to Stand and My Bloody Life. They’re well written. Boys get in line to read them.

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Yes, maybe not every book is of high literary quality (e.g., the Amigas series). But if students are reading 20-40 books a year, there’s nothing wrong with a fun and easy pick sometimes. It builds speed and fluency and stamina, not to mention a joy of reading.

I may be in the minority here. Some may say that independent reading lacks academic rigor, that if I let my students read Perfect Chemistry, they’ll never read The Great Gatsby. I say exactly the opposite: If I don’t let my students read Perfect Chemistry, they’ll never read The Great Gatsby.

What do you think? favicon

6 comments

  1. Tony

    I like this post. I agree with a lot of it. I have a couple concerns with Common Core State Standards as it pertains to the shift away from reading fiction. First, I should add that I think the CCSS is a good idea – and I worry less about it in theory or even in its written form – and more about what enactment will look like in schools that have students with low skills. Maybe it will go great.
    Concern One: As an ELA teacher, I see as part of my charge trying to help develop a relationship with reading literature. If students in my old AP class, for example, where left to there own devices when reading say, Hamlet – then they’d be less likely to read it or even like it.
    Concern Two: The move away from reading novels is coupled with ways of reading – close reading they call it – that both limits what books offer and will make it difficult for some students to have any entry point to want to read.
    Concern Three: For better or worse – for many adults – the time in their life when they were exposed to the most books in relatively short time was during school. They will continue to read informational texts, newspapers, internet sites, work related texts – throughout their lives. But many may never pick up a novel. To me this suggests two things – lets make ELA classes a place to hopefully develop life long readers, and lets make sure the reading they do while in school is well taught so they can get all that school texts have to offer.
    Concern Four: This is really an extension of the above concerns. For resistant readers who have a negative view of books and are not likely to read even when they have choice – their is a need to cast a wide net. Reading less novels also lessens the potential for a student to say, perhaps for the first time – Mr. Isero, I could not put this book down! I think that students who have had that feeling about a book, even only once or twice, benefits immensely. It is hard to know the right book for lighting that spark, and if we teach less novels (not that many get taught now by the way) we lessen the potential for this moment.

    Finally, and this is just me, its called English Language ARTS! Given the lack of art (music, dance, theater, visual) in schools – ELA is one of the last remaining classes where poetry, drama, novels, and the like can allow students the chance to experience an artistic form. You know, like creative non-fiction (which apparently won’t qualify as non-fiction texts as envisioned by CCSS implementers).

    At the end of the day – students need to read multiple genres, and teachers need to teach students that these genres require different ways of reading and offer different benefits.

  2. Megan

    Yes, yes, and YES. It’s like you are reading my mind, Mark. It’s why I make Independent Reading 20% of my total grade and spend so much time talking to kids about books, reading books to my kids, figuring out what they like so I can recommend similar titles, etc etc. Independent Reading is SO KEY to student success in all their other classes. Kids HAVE to build reading stamina, but they aren’t going to do that with books they are FORCED to read. When a kid comes in on a Monday and says, “I read 150 pages of that book you recommended this weekend! It was so great!”, I am almost willing to forgive the fact that they didn’t get any of their homework done 🙂

  3. Mark Isero

    Megan, I’m really happy that you emphasize independent reading. Do you give reading time in class? I’m trying to figure out the best balance of in-class vs. for-homework reading time (and how to encourage for-homework reading even though I don’t believe in reading logs). Do you have any tips?

    Tony, as always, I appreciated your thoughts. You know, I was thinking, I’ve never had a student pull me aside and say, “Mr. Isero, I loved that Time magazine article! That has changed my viewpoint on reading forever!” It’s full-length books (usually fiction, but not always), not short- and medium-length articles, that can change young people’s lives. So you’re right that we do a disservice by exposing our students to fewer books.

    I also like your point that it’s our job, as English teachers, to help students to “develop a relationship with reading literature.” We shouldn’t do the reading for them, nor should we get completely out of the way. Too many people who oppose independent reading think that teachers just sit in the corner and check their email while their students spend their time reading. Megan knows this is not the truth!

    • Megan

      Mark, we spend a lot of time talking about books in class (creating a culture of literary nerds, if you will), although less time doing actual independent reading in class. (I see my kiddos for 50 minutes, 4 days a week. We do have an SSR period, but it’s only 20 minutes, 1 day a week).

      One thing that has really made a difference this year is that my kids keep an online, public reading log (www.ellis-english.com) – logging books as they finish them – that I can access throughout the quarter rather than just at the end of the quarter when students would traditionally turn in a reading log. I use this to encourage students who seem to be falling behind, suggest books based on reading habits, etc. Students often get book recommendations from their peers on the reading log as well (the recommendation of a peer is worth way more than a recommendation from me!).

      I also take time to read the first few paragraphs from a hot, new YA book every Friday (“First Paragraph Friday”) and just generally try to keep the conversation about the books we (yes, including me – teachers need to model healthy reading habits for their kids) are reading open at all times. I am not exaggerating when I say that I have at LEAST one kid EVERY day stay after class or come in after school (on their own time!) to return a book to me, borrow a book from me, or talk about a book that I mentioned in class.

      I also assign very little “English class” homework, reminding my students that on nights they are not doing “real” homework for me, they should make it a point to do ~20 minuets of Independent Reading. I know they don’t all take advantage of that, but I figure if I’m asking them to read a certain amount each quarter, I owe it to them to give them the time to do that at home in a fashion that doesn’t compete with other homework from me.

      Clearly, I could talk about this all day! I actually do a presentation on how I specifically use high-tech tools to create a culture of literary nerds at educational technology conferences (although there’s lots of low-tech stuff in there as well). If you’re interested, you can see my session materials and some of my other tricks at this link: http://goo.gl/2pBmI

  4. Mark Isero

    Megan, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and session materials. You and I have some similar interests — namely, reading and technology!

    I like how you have students log their books when they finish them. (This is very different from a daily reading log, which I don’t like.) Making the results from the Google form public, right on your website, is a nice touch. I might have to steal your idea!

    The trick, of course, is to make private reading public. That’s the only way to build the “literary nerd” culture. Thank you again for pushing my thinking.

    • Megan

      I tried doing the daily reading log when I started teaching – what a battle! I’m OK with kids not reading DAILY as long as they are getting the reading in somehow. Some kids really like to read for long stretches on the weekend rather than little bursts every evening. That’s definitely how I prefer to read. Why punish them for that?

Please share your brilliant insights!