We’ve all seen it. We give students a reading assignment and they pretend to read it. They get by in class because we feed them what we want them to know, and they give it back on the test (often with a little help from SparkNotes). If you ask, many middle and high school students will admit that they haven’t read a book from cover to cover since elementary school (and some not even then).
This is the issue Penny Kittle openly and honestly addresses in Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers. Most students are not reading much and therefore are not building the stamina they need to keep up with the reading that college courses require, around 200-600 pages a week according to Kittle. This may in part account for the low percentage of college students who actually graduate, but success in college is only one of the consequences of increasing reading volume. People who read often and a lot are lifelong learners who make wiser decisions and are more likely to pass the reading habit and love of books on to their children.
A large portion of this book is devoted to the idea that students will read more when they are given choice and allowed to find and read the books that interest them. They also need time to read in class and guidance (mostly through conferencing) in setting goals, choosing books, overcoming challenges, and responding to what they’re reading through writing. Kittle provides advice gleaned from years of experience as an English teacher whose classes are workshops where students read independently, reflect on their growth as readers, and share their love of books with each other. While she understands the curricular and assessment requirements imposed on ELA teachers, she advocates for a balance of individual choice and required whole-class text study, but suggests a greater percentage of time for the former.
In the last chapter of the book, Kittle addresses the challenge of creating a school-wide reading culture, a community of readers. In my mind, this is the greater challenge, but one that must be met if our goal is to inspire lifelong readers. We’ve all seen attempts at school-wide sustained silent reading time, and most of them fail, generally through a lack of commitment and shared intent. Kittle describes her success in creating a school-wide reading break, as well as other ideas for creating a reading community.
A few years ago, Kittle created a video where she asked students about their reading habits and whether they read assigned books. I’ve asked this question in my school with similar results.
Our students’ lack of reading stamina is something most of us will acknowledge, but how do we turn it around? Is allowing more choice the answer? Is this something we can do while focusing on standards-based instruction and proficiency-based assessment? How important is it that all students read the classics? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.
By the way, Penny Kittle will be one of the keynote speakers at the MAMLE Conference at Point Lookout, October 20 and 21.