Most high schools don’t include very much reading in their curriculum. Here are some of the reasons I’ve heard:
1. Students don’t read very well. We have to find different ways for students to access the content.
2. Students don’t like to read. In this Internet age, let’s use more technology.
3. There isn’t enough time. If we devoted our classes to reading, we wouldn’t be able to meet all the standards.
Although these claims have flaws, I won’t try to prove them wrong. After all, even if they’re true, they don’t help students become better readers. And I don’t think anyone would argue that reading is an unnecessary skill.
Most people think that the best way to get good at something is through practice. That’s what Malcolm Gladwell writes in Outliers: The Story of Success. And that’s what reading experts Stephen Krashen and Kelly Gallagher and Nancie Atwell all say.
But the problem is that young people are not reading very much at all. According to To Read or Not to Read, a 2011 study from the National Endowment for the Arts, 15- to 24-year-olds read an average of seven minutes per day.
You read that right: Seven minutes per day — vs. about 2 1/2 hours per day of television.
(When students tell me they’d prefer watching the movie over reading the book, I respond, “Of course you would. You’re good at watching TV. You’ve had so much practice.”)
So if young people aren’t reading, and practice is the best way to get better at something, that means that schools must aggressively increase the amount of reading that students do.
It’s not easy, but it must be done.
The first step is to encourage all teachers — not just English teachers — to include reading in their lesson plans every day. Reading is different in each discipline, and students need to know how reading a science text is different from reading a math problem.
The next step is for schools to commit to an independent reading program — and to make it a source of pride for the school community. Most schools rely on the English teachers to carry out independent reading, but it must be a school-wide effort. Students must choose books they like, have time to read them, and talk about what they’ve read.
(Amazing things can be done: Principal Ramón González of M.S. 223 in the Bronx spent $200,000 last year to purchase books students would like. He also hosts a principal’s book club.)
The final step is for English teachers to figure out how best to distribute the study of fiction, nonfiction, and independent reading in their classes and across the school. Right now, most English teachers teach novels, short stories, and poetry, which excludes the majority of text that people read. (No, I’m not making an argument here for Common Core.) There should be a shift away from fiction as the pretty-much-only genre in English classes.
But whatever happens, the key thing is that there just has to be much more reading. Educators like to talk about 21st century skills and how students need to learn how to collaborate and analyze various electronic media and be able to assess bias and credibility in sources. That is all true.
But to do that, students need to read a lot and learn how to read at a much higher level. And if that’s going to happen, high schools must make the teaching of reading a priority.