Why Students Hate Reading–And Often Aren’t Very Good At It

blue-square-thingWhy Students Hate Reading–And Often Aren’t Very Good At It

by Terry Heick

We tend to teach reading in a very industrial way in the United States.

We focus on giving kids “tools” and “strategies” to “make” sense of a text. To “take it apart.” To look for the “author’s purpose”—to bounce back and forth between a main idea, and the details that “support” the main idea, as if the reading is some kind of thing that students happen upon by chance while on some purely academic journey.

And we push the illusion of the “otherness” of a text by promoting the lie that they simply need to decode this, recognize that, and analyze that and that and that, and they’ll be able to “read” (a troublesome word).

While this all does well to emphasize the work that real literacy requires, there’s little wonder why students are increasingly seeking briefer, more visual, social, and dynamic media. Because not only are these media forms effortlessly entertaining, they rarely require meaningful investment of themselves.

And it is this kind of connection that makes reading–or any other media consumption for that matter–feel alive and vibrant and whole. When readers are younger, there is a natural “give” between the reader and the text, their imaginations still raw and green and alive.

But as readers grow older, there is less give–and more need for texts to be contextualized differently.

The Spirituality Of Literacy

There is a spirituality involved in reading (really) that is challenging to promote only in the classroom. (That is, not at home, at social or recreational events, but only at school, where it will always be a kind of naked.)

Cognitively, a student “makes sense” of a text through a perfectly personal schema—that is, through the symbols and patterns and enthusiasm and suffering and meaning in their own lives. Students can’t simply be encouraged to “bring themselves” and their own experiences to a text; they have to realize that any grasp of the text decays almost immediately if they don’t.

Without that inward, reflective pattern where students acknowledge the sheer craziness of reading–where they are asked to merge two realities (the text, and themselves)—then that process will always be industrial. Mechanical.

A matter of literacy and “career readiness.”

Other.

It’s interesting that we give students crude, mechanical tools that, even used well, can only hope to mar and smash the text beyond recognition, then wonder why they don’t appreciate Shakespeare or Berry or Faulkner or Dickinson.

We try to divorce the reader from the reading.

The nuance and complexity of literature is its magic. But students raised in data-loud, image-based, form-full, socialized and self-important circumstances aren’t accustomed to that kind of selfless—and terrifying–interaction.

The self-reflection true literacy requires is horrifying! To closely examine who we are and what we think we know by studying another parallel examination from another human being who put their thinking in the form of a novel, short story, poem, or essay! You’re not just “reading” another person’s thoughts, but you’re pouring yourself into their marrow.

No wonder they skim.

Most readers are already working from a disadvantaged position, where they view themselves as not only distinct from the text (false), but somehow further along in time and priority, as if they are being brought to some text to see if it’s worth their time.

And so they sit with it only long enough to see if it entertains them, neglecting the most fundamental tenet of literacy: Interdependence.

old-shoe-womanThe Irony Of Reading

In reading, you’re simply uncovering something you’ve always been a part of. Instincts you’ve always had. Circumstances you’ve long been afraid of. Events and ideas and insights you’ve struggled to put into words but have just found right there on the page.

Your brain can’t understand it any other way.

Compared to media experiences most modern students gravitate easily towards–Instagram, facebook, Vine, Epic Fail YouTube channels, video games—reading also lacks the immediate spectacle that can catalyze the experience. Something that lights them up inside at a basic knee-jerk level, and will keep them from having to go any further.

Reading isn’t a show. (Not at first anyhow.) It doesn’t exist to make them LOL. (Though it might.)

But they often turn the page hoping to be passively entertained. Ironically then, reading isn’t “built” for what we use it for in education. It’s hugely personal, but we focus on the mechanics because of our insistence on standardization.

Reading involves process and tools and strategies, but it isn’t any of those things.

The Ecology Of Reading

It’d be easy to blame the ecology of it all. To suggest that Huckleberry Finn was only interesting because Minecraft wasn’t around to compare it to.

Or to blame social media for distracting everyone.

And this is all part of it. Their habits and access to complex texts and personal affinities matter. There is an ecology that schools and students and texts and literacy operate within–an interdependence–that is there whether we choose to honor it or not. A lot of this is much bigger than you and I as teachers.

But that doesn’t excuse us from our own failures in how we teach reading in schools. We give students processes for writing and tools for reading without stopping to humanize the whole effort. Mechanized literacy has all sorts of troubling implications.

You and I–we teach students to overvalue their own opinions when they’re still often baseless and uninformed, which is like teaching them to read without helping them to truly understand why they should read.

We fail to help them navigate the blessed, intimidating, awkward otherness of reading that makes it rise.

And so we lose the reader—the real person–in the process.

Image attribution flickr user bluesquarething and oldshoewoman

37 Comments

    • Writing this was my way of thinking through it myself. Not sure there’s a simple answer, but it might have less to do with teaching and trumpeting reading as “important,” and more to do with helping students see the relationship between a text and themselves. As something they’re already a part of, rather than something “else.”

      Rebranding reading would also help, but that’s a slightly different issue.

  • I never enjoyed reading until my senior year of high school. A friend handed me a paperback. I told him that I didn’t read. He insisted I read it. That night I was bored and read “The Pearl” by Steinbeck from cover to cover. I was crying at the end. My mother stuck her head in my room and asked me what was wrong. I told her that reading a book was better than television. The next day, I went to the library to check out more books to read. I eventually became a teacher who wanted to motivate students to read. One successful reading activity I have is for my students to pick 2 books from a bookshelf of high interest books at different reading levels that are spread out on a table. I tell them that they can pick an easy book for fun or a hard book for a challenge. Each day they will draw labelled stick figures about the story and write about it. They do not have to finish the book but if they finish, they need to start another book. When they write about their story, they are to include the 5 W’s +1H: 1.WHO is the story about? 2. WHAT is happening so far? 3. WHY is it happening? 4. WHERE is the story taking place so far? 5. WHEN is the story happening at this part? 6. HOW do you feel about what is happening or HOW do you think it will turn out? Each day, we start with silent reading while I walk around checking each reading journal. After checking all or a select few (saving the other students for the next class meeting), I randomly call on students to either read a short part of their book or else just talk about their book. It’s wonderful when one student whispers to another, “I want to read that book when you’re done.” Peer pressure can sometimes be a good thing. For after lunch story time, I let the students draw while I or another student reads a story. I sometimes read the “Choose your Own Adventure” stories and have the students vote on what to do next or else I randomly call on a student to choose for the class. I don’t completely finish reading the books. Instead, I ask who wants to read this book. Then I usually select the student with the first hand that goes up and who hasn’t received a book from story time in quite a while. This is how I foster excitement and love of reading for my students.

    • Thanks for your thought piece, Terry. I teach university students in Mexico and getting them to take reading seriously as a skill is an ongoing challenge. One of the saddest things a student has ever said to me was ‘Teacher, when I read there are no pictures in my head.’ I think this is part of what you were writing about and I wish I knew a way to help them internalize what they read. I also agree with Janine Caffrey that fluency must come before being able to take pleasure in reading. As a lifelong reader, non-readers completely mystify me. And my students who hate to read challenge me every day to try new ways to engage them in reading. How do you make someone want to read? I’d love an answer to that question.

  • I tried to find why kids hate reading or aren’t very good at it in this article (e.g. facts, research, evidence, anecdotes), but failed.

    As a former reading teacher and current avid reader, one of the things I appreciate most about reading is how the reader can take the point of view of the main character (I am speaking to fiction here mostly, although biographies work too). This perspective-taking builds empathy because it forces the mind to take on the situation, thoughts, and feelings of another person. “Horrifying” is one of the last ways I would describe reading. Through a character’s experience, I find out more about myself through reading, and I am never lost.

    As a connected educator, I also find the time I spend reading to be deliberative, sometimes almost meditative. Reading is the antithesis to all of the connections I have online. My ability to imagine and think abstractly is increased because reading forces me to slow down, think, and reflect. While I find Twitter and other social media tools to be great for professional learning, I cannot delve deeply into a topic in the way that reading (and writing) allows.

      • It’s not that I didn’t find any use in the post, Terry. I would never have commented if that were the case. What I was hoping to find is some evidence to support your viewpoint. I live in both worlds, and I find these types of discussions can lead to deeper thinking about this topic of literacy. It is ever evolving, and I appreciate you sharing your current perspective.

  • I believe one way to cause younger students, even up to middle school level, to put their spirit into the reading activity is to engage in reading stories to them. Story telling is one activity that does not need a lot of imagery, bells or whistles to retain students’ attention They still have an imagination.. When you put yourself into an interesting story as you read it to the class the students will automatically become wholly involved. Then invite other good readers in the class to read a story to the class on a different day. It will become a venue for great think alouds and open discussion. The reading circle should never be eliminated from the classroom no matter how much technology is promoted in the school.

  • Nicely done. This reminds me of the Canadian author/researcher Frank Smith who believes that “reading is supposed to make sense.” It seems to me that if that philosophy, and the one espoused herein, were regularly employed with kids they might become readers who enjoy books.

  • The reason kids hate reading is simply because it is too complex for them once they reach third and fourth grade. Children to read through patterns. If they are taught in a phonetic way where they can actually see the patterns in the words so they can make sense of the word. The text will make no sense. Children are taught to memorize words which stymies their ability to comprehend text. If it too hard or the reading is not fun and enjoyable kids will not do it.

    • Your “so they can make sense of the word” is only true to a certain extent. Check how many schools teaching phonics have an illiteracy rate lower than schools teaching in the ‘whole language’ methods. Then ask why is it that despite teaching phonics the illiteracy rate is still the same.
      The answer is simple: About 20% of kids shut-down when things are confusing to them. You cannot teach them phonics by saying A as in apple and then teach them words such as ‘ace, arm, around, alter’ which all carry different sounds from the first sound of ‘a’ as in apple. Read the articles in my blog and comment or ask me whatever questions you may have.
      80% of kids have no problem reading in whatever way a teacher teaches them but not the 20% who have to be taught in a different way.

  • It’s about fluency. You can’t be “meditative” or get into the “spirituality” of reading if you lack the ability to automatically make sense of words, chunks, sentences and paragraphs. There is nothing mysterious at all about the teaching of reading. Unfortunately, we have gotten into such a debate over phonics vs. whole language, that many teachers have classrooms that don’t provide instruction in the balanced way necessary for kids to truly learn. Nearly two thirds of third graders nationally lack the basic skills. There are many places where this is done well – but there is no effort (so far) to spread best practices across districts or states or the country. This is a completely solvable problem. We are making it way too complicated.

    • Thanks for the feedback. It sounds like you’ve got some experience here. So, to clarify, it’s your opinion that if children were all “competent decoders,” they’d love to read?

      • Oh gosh no. I do believe there is something to the spirituality of it as you describe. But that can come only after they are competent decoders, which then allows them to become fluent. Decoding is necessary for fluency, which is necessary for spirituality of reading. You are correct that one can be a competent reader and still hate it. Unfortunately though, we are living in a time and place where most kids are not acquiring very basic reading skills in the early grades. We have to solve this part of it, or the rest that you describe is simply not possible.

        • Makes a lot of sense! Find out why despite spending billions of dollars over the last decade and after implementing the ‘No child left behind’ policy the illiteracy rate is still the same as in the 1970’s.

      • That is correct. All my students love reading after a few months of being taught to read fluently. They hated reading when first sent to me for tuition. The fault lies on the researcher who wrote about 35 years ago that dyslexic children find it difficult to read because of phonological awareness deficit . Many researchers since then have jumped on the band-wagon echoing the same thing without understanding what they are writing about. My challenge to anyone out there is : How can one say that dyslexics cannot read because they have a phonological awareness deficit when my dyslexic students can read fluently in Malay but are ‘dyslexic’ in English? To say that about 20% of the population (that is roughly the illiteracy rate) cannot read because of ‘phonological awareness deficit’ looks so obviously wrong.

  • Students often connect with deeply personal issues that have become less taboo to write about and discuss lately, such as cutting, identity, and equity. All or any of these themes come alive when students have an interest and background knowledge to draw from–that is the spirituality of reading. Give them choices of good works to digest.

  • The way we are asked to “chop up” reading into excerpts to meet a specific standard is concerning. That is what destroys meaningful investment of time, interest, and attention. Whether literature or informational text, the student has to see the “need to know”–or have a reason to care.

  • Tell children a story, with cheer, verve and dramatic effects, and they’ll sit rapt. Tell them to _read_ a story and (chances are) they’ll be annoyed. THAT is the gap to be bridged.

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