"Ms. So-and-so says I have to have a book to read today. Miss, I hate reading! She said I need to talk to you and have you help me."
From time to time, I have this conversation with students at my middle school. The popular term for students who don't like to read is "reluctant readers," but I don't think "reluctant" is quite strong enough to describe students who say they hate reading. "Reluctant" implies that they are simply unwilling, that they can read but choose not to. But to me, "reluctant" is easier to overcome than someone who claims to hate reading. For students who have shut out reading completely, I prefer the term "resistant." Resistant readers often have poor reading skills, possibly as a result of multiple bad past reading experiences. They can read the words on the page, but they simply do not connect with what they are reading. Most likely, their grades reflect their lack of reading skills as well.
"I'VE NEVER LIKED TO READ."
These kids are not stupid. They often have better computer skills than their parents. They manage to program smart phones and get around the school's internet filter. They keep track of sports stats and quote their favorite movies verbatim. They can remember complicated song lyrics and navigate the social zoo of a middle school cafeteria. No, they are nowhere close to stupid, even though they (and God forbid, their parents and teachers) may define themselves that way.
They also haven't always hated reading, even though that may be all they remember. When I was an elementary librarian, I read to little ones every day. Yes, there were students who were more difficult to engage than others during storytime. However, difficult is not impossible. A great example of this is my manatee storytime that we did during the week of Earth Day in April. After playing the CD of John Lithgow's amazing book I'm A Manatee, we talked about why manatees are endangered and looked more deeply at illustrator Ard Hoyt's commentary about environmental factors leading to the decline of the manatee. We talked about trash in the water along Florida's coastline. I showed them photos from some nonfiction books in our library of manatees, and a couple of those photos showed a manatee that had a large scar from being hit by a speedboat propeller. Every time I did this storytime, the kids were absolutely riveted; We wouldn't see manatee books, fiction or nonfiction, on the library shelves for weeks.
When reading comes alive for kids, they are into it whether they like reading or not. I've had so many teens tell me they liked reading when they were little, but they don't like it anymore. So what happened?
HOW DID THEY GO FROM RELUCTANT TO RESISTANT?
Somewhere along the way, resistant readers forgot how to read for fun. Because reading became a chore for them back in elementary school, they didn't do it willingly and became "reluctant" readers. The books their teachers assigned didn't speak to them, and they did not learn to care about the story. Maybe they really liked reading shark books, and they weren't allowed to check out a book above their reading level (a reading sin, in my opinion). As their time spent reading declined, so did their decoding and comprehension skills. They end up stagnant on a second or third grade reading level, and by the time they enter middle school, reading is so frustrating that they shut down completely.
IT'S NOT TOO LATE
Intervention for students in these situations is absolutely critical. Learning to read and connect with the words on the page can make or break that child's success. Since every school subject relies heavily on the ability to read and comprehend, a love for reading can mean the difference between a college graduate and a high school dropout. As someone who works with middle school students every day, I know that if these students get the right help, they can learn to love reading.
HOW CAN I HELP TURN IT AROUND FOR MY TEEN?
1. BECOME A READING CHEERLEADER
First and foremost, resistant readers need a reading cheerleader, someone who is so excited about books that the students can't help but wonder what all the fuss is about. They need to be around this person every day and hear the genuine enthusiasm in that person's voice. This person can be anyone, but a parent or close friend of that student is optimal. A favorite teacher or the school librarian are often also fabulous choices as long as they see that person every day.
2. BAN THE POPCORN READING
No more monotone readers. They need to follow along with books read aloud by someone who can make the book come alive for them. This can be achieved with audiobooks (yes, nay-sayers, audiobooks ARE real reading), but it should also be done by a real person. That person should be someone who loves and is personally connected with the book or poem or whatever they are reading aloud. For read-alouds, the reader should NOT be other students who are resistant or unconnected readers. The point is to get kids excited and engaged in their reading, not to torture them.
3. GIVE THEM--GASP!--A CHOICE
Every reader, resistant or not, needs to be allowed to choose their own reading materials. If a student likes Mad magazine, he or she should read Mad magazine. Manga readers should read Manga. Telling them a book is banned somewhere almost always gets their attention. The point here is for the student to CONNECT with and enjoy their reading. While I love Shakespeare and Jane Austen as much as the next English major, kids who hate reading will hate the classics. They don't get it, and they won't try to. Resistant readers are probably not reading on grade level, so take time to seek out hi-lo (high interest, low reading level) books. Hi-lo books for teens are a rapidly-growing segment of the publishing market; if you can't find them, just ask a librarian. I will also be posting lists of great books for resistant readers in the coming days.
Take your teen to a library or bookstore regularly and let them pick out two or three books they think they'll enjoy. Don't pass judgment; if they want to read about Hollywood celebrities or video games or how to fashionably rip their own clothes, let them. At least they are reading SOMETHING. Allowing choices has tremendous power; for a resistant teen reader, the ability to choose may the only thing that makes them want to pick up that book after they leave the library.
4. PRACTICE WHAT YOU PREACH
Teachers and parents are constantly telling kids to read. They hear it from celebrities and on public service announcements. Chances are, most teens know that they probably should read more. But when they hear you say it and don't see you reading, it sends a mixed message. Wanting teens to read more starts with Number One, you. Are you also a resistant reader? What do YOU read for fun?
Turn off the TV for a while and read with (or to!) your teen. Buying two copies of the same book will give you the added bonus of forming a new connection with your teen as you discuss the book.
Recommended books for middle and high school resistant readers