As a lifelong reader, I was thrilled when Teach For America assigned me to teach Secondary English. But when I looked across my classroom in the early years, it was clear my students lacked intrinsic literary motivation. The stakes for indifferent readers are high: on reading assessments, students who score in the 90th percentile typically read 40 minutes each day, while 50th percentile-achievers read fewer than 13 minutes daily. My concern peaked when an otherwise intellectually curious eighth grader told me, casually, “I don’t read, Ms. Berger. Reading isn’t cool.” So began my quest to make reading “cool.”
No one needs to tell me that new teachers have a ton on their plates. Expecting you to singlehandedly cool-ify reading, while accomplishing all of your other responsibilities, seems unfair. Thus, much like we do with the kiddos, I’m differentiating and giving you three options, even the simplest of which is guaranteed to help you inspire the next generation of readers.
Mild: Read young adult literature.
Donald, a snarky middle schooler, had never met a book he didn’t hate. While perusing my classroom library together during detention, I suggested Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. “The narrator is a hilarious, highly-observant teen, so he’s basically you.” Donald sized up the book, unconvinced. “Also there’s cartoons,” I added, sealing the deal.
You can’t recommend what you haven’t read. If you’re looking for reading to be a kid-free zone, I promise that many of the genre’s offerings, like I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson or Looking for Alaska by John Green, are as literary and adult as any grown-person book club’s suggestions. Start reading what the kids are reading, and you’ll be able to talk, advise, and maybe even convert your own Donalds.
Medium: Increase your kids’ access to great books.
Kids read more when there are engaging books in classroom libraries begging to be read. Here’s some places you can find the hottest titles, buy them cheap, or convince other folks to pay for them:
These guys assemble YA collections so that you know the current hits and award-winners.
Serving exclusively students from low-income families, FirstBook provides educators access to Marketplaces with 50 to 90 percent discounts on new titles and classics, as well as National Book Banks that offer free books (you’ll only pay for shipping).
We’ve raised thousands of dollars to fund classroom libraries through this crowdfunding site.
Spicy: Gamify reading.
How is it that the same kid who spends four hours trying to beat a level in Grand Theft Auto can’t muster the stamina to finish a Dork Diary?
Programs like Accelerated Reader motivate students by gamifying reading: letting kids take comprehension quizzes on their independent novels and measuring word counts. Celebrating as kids “level up” with both public recognition and small tangible rewards like pencils and bookmarks can transform even the most reluctant readers into scholars beaming with pride when they reach a major milestone like a million words read. (We call that being a “Millionaire,” btw.)
This is spicy because it requires administrator buy-in and funding, both of which can sometimes be tough to swing for new teachers. Here’s how you can imitate this for free: roughly measure a book’s word count by counting the words on a single page and multiplying it by the number of pages. Publicly recognizing students who read lots of words is always free, and whether you’re printing certificates or posting names on a classroom wall, kids will know that how much they read matters.
Which brings me to the easiest and least time-intensive way to show kids that reading matters: talk to them! Ask your students what they’re reading right now and inquire as to their favorite books. Not only will you be building relationships, you’ll be building a culture of literacy. That’s cool.
Stephanie Berger has taught middle school English in New Orleans for seven years, where she is also an instructional coach and department chair. She already reads way too much young adult fiction. Don’t judge her.