Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Relearning reluctant readers

Einstein quote: the only thing that interferes with my learning is my education

As a librarian, I’ve always tried to champion the reluctant readers. I’ve worked to provide a wide variety of reading material in my collection development ranges – everything from high interest low level books, to compelling nonfiction, to fiction told by and about diverse voices, to comics, image heavy browsing books, and more. When parents would lament about how their teens just don’t read, I’d nod sagely and advise them, as I’d been advised, to give it time and provide ample options for free choice. [Why wouldn’t these parents just chill out and back off?!] I’d assure them that comic books are real books, and that engaging with books on nail art or internet memes is reading, as it’s engagement with the text. All of it, when self-selected, works to create good feelings about books, self confidence, and becomes a scaffold to reading more. I don’t think they believed me a lot of the time.

And then I met a reluctant reader whose resistance to novels just broke my heart: my own kid! Getting to know my daughter as a reluctant reader has completely reoriented me, and yes: it knocked me off my high horse right quick. What I know about her is that she loves stories. She creates them in her mind, in her play, in her notebooks, and on canvas. She listens to them whenever people will read to her, or in audiobook format, she watches them on screens, and she reads them visually in comics. It’s the physical and mental act of reading itself that challenges her and that she dislikes. She is so hungry for stories that her own skill level slows her down so much that it gets in the way of her consumption.

Now. She’s not a teen yet. She’s a developing reader. She needs to learn how to read fluently because it’s a basic life skill, without even addressing the joy of discovery to be found in sinking into your new favorite book. She has to learn it. She has to get better. And I know that in time she will. But it’s hard. It’s hard to know that the path that I know will lead her to happiness is rocky and her feet are bare. It’s hard to hold myself back from taking the book from her and reading for her, letting her get swept away on the magic carpet of words that she so desperately wants to be on.

The fact is though, that she has to read to become a better reader. She needs to do the work that she’s assigned at school, and practice those spelling words, and follow through where her teacher expects it. And though I’ll never stop reading to her and never deny her audiobooks, I may suggest she choose something with a few more words on the page. At least on occasion. Reading is a skill that expands the potential to consume stories, but it isn’t the key to enjoying them. It’s not even necessary for enjoying stories. I live in the intersection of the Venn diagram where a love of stories and a love of reading overlap. She’s not there yet. And that’s ok because she’s in her own circle.

My daughter’s experience doesn’t mean that all of these teens are in the same circle she’s in, but they have a lot going for them. They’re in the circle for “my teacher is encouraging/scary enough that I’m here at the library looking for a book.” They’re in the “my parents really care about me and brought me to the library” circle. They’re in the “I already know what I like, and I already know I don’t like what my [mom/dad/teacher] likes” circle. They’re in the “a librarian in my community cares about what I’m reading and is providing me options” circle.

So back to my interactions with “reluctant reader” teens and their parents. I’ve had a healthy taste of humble pie, and it’s making me more empathetic. These parents – most of them at least – don’t want their kids reading Proust. They just want them reading a full page of text because it’s an important skill to have. We want our kids to succeed, whether they’re actually our kids or not. We all do. And though my lines are still the same: provide options; books are books; all reading is good reading, I say them with a greater understanding of the difficulty of letting the process unfold at its pace, of navigating the wire between “free choice” and “graded assignment” and of the personal stake that these parents feel in both their children’s reading enjoyment, and the academic success that they think it will bring them.

More on Text Complexity – this time in students’ free reading

In my last response to this NPR article, I wrote about the complexity of texts used in the Language Arts classroom. I decided to break my response into two parts when I realized that I had SO MUCH TO SAY that I could basically go through and argue each point line by line. I won’t do that to you; we’d all be bored. However, even though I do have a lot more to say about text complexity, let me make my main point clear:

 Reading Level does not equal Text Complexity
And to say that it does is an oversimplification of a critical issue. There is so much more involved in text complexity. Comprehension, student interest, past experiences, exposure to culture, literary themes – these are just a few things that need to be taken into account. It’s almost as if those people not involved in education don’t realize that you are seldom going to find a text where all of these match up to create the perfect text for study in a classroom setting, much less when student choice is allowed.
Let’s take, for instance, Anna Karenina (since the NPR article references it.) At a Lexile level of 1080, and an ATOS readability score of 9.6 (ninth grade, about halfway through) it should be readable by most ninth grade students, yes? And when did you read it, if you read it at all? It’s clearly an adult novel with advanced themes and a reliance upon an understanding of a completely foreign, historical society for which most American high school students have little or no frame of reference. If taught well, with a lot of supporting study and information, it might be within the comprehension of advanced high school students. Maybe. I read it in AP English my senior year in high school. I remember just enough that I vaguely understood the party line footnoter phone jokes in Jasper Fforde’s One of Our Thursday’s is Missing. Or, at least, I understood that they were referencing Anna Karenina.
So, let’s take a step back and look at what our goal is for students’ free reading choices. By free reading choices I’m including anything they get to choose, whether it is somehow counted for school credit or not. Many schools participate in an X Book Challenge (where x = an arbitrary number of books, pages, or minutes), or require students to keep a reading log for homework credit. I am a big proponent of students having a freedom in what to read for this. My main goal, as a school librarian, is neatly summed up by the last paragraph of the NPR article:

“Reading leads to reading, says Silvey. It’s when kids stop reading, or never get started in the first place, that there’s no chance of ever getting them hooked on more complex books.”

We need the students to be READERS, first, and to worry about WHAT they are reading second, or third, or maybe even not at all. For an interesting take on this, you may want to go read this article at Book Riot. When students are encouraged to pursue their personal interests and given open access to a wide variety of well marketed, attractive reading materials, most will become readers with very little coercion on the part of adults.

For an illustration of what this looks like, I present to you the materials my nephew (aged 11 – almost 12, about to enter 6th grade) was reading when he came for a visit last week. Some of these were books he brought with him, some were books I had purchased at my school’s book fair, some were purchased at the local book store on his first day here:

Some of them are well below his reading level, some right at, some well above. But all of them include things he is interested in, and I actually saw him reading all of them at different points during the week. His parents think he’s ‘not a big reader.’ *bangs head on table* I would do anything if my students were even halfway this interested in reading.

Would it be ideal for my students to read ever more increasingly complex materials? Maybe. If they remained engaged and involved readers who were exposed to a variety of ideas and information that would help them to become well educated, actively participating, empathetic members of society. But at any level, I agree with Silvey – reading leads to reading – and that is what’s important.