How To Build Better Readers: IMHO…

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that just about everyone perusing this post would agree that reading is a vital part of education. Reading IMHO (in my humble opinion) is a vital part of, well, life.

Then why is it that our high school age students abandon – no change that to – are driven from reading? It is not my intention to be antagonistic toward English/Literature teachers. I thoroughly respect the job they have to do. I merely hope to incite a discussion to understand the educational goal, and maybe develop a suggestion to obtain that goal, without creating the unintended affront toward reading for pleasure. I will preface this by stating that I have not conducted a nationwide survey. These concerns arise from observations and interactions with dozens of local teenagers.

I believe in reading assignments for all ages. Even – and maybe especially – during the precious vacation breaks. No reports due or questions attached, just reading.

His participation in a Labor Day event was dependent upon his progress with the second novel. He Hemingway_farewellread it cover to cover in twelve hours. We were able to discuss it at length. I was relieved to know that I hadn’t raised an ignorant child. I had spent two months of the summer prodding, pleading, arguing, punishing and bullying this 16-year-old into reading a classic that he will now abhor for the remainder of his life. I decided to read it. Well, I hated it too. As a matter of fact, I didn’t finish reading it. IMHO, it was AWFUL.

Before you judge me, I admit I am not a literary genius. However, I am an educated woman. I love to read and have enjoyed many of the classics.   And, I have committed to reading another Hemingway. But, why must we alienate our high school readers with literature some find wonderful and classic that is just so foreign and repulsive to most teens?   These classics belong in college elective courses where they can be truly admired and appreciated. I totally agree with the concept of introducing classic literature, drama, and poetry to our high school students, but can it be done in a less obtrusive manner? Moby Dick, I am told, has been divided up into chunks of chapters per student and the story then shared through presentation. Reading of Shakespeare in the classroom followed by a field trip to the theatre proved an effective way to present his work in my high school experience. Assigning Farewell to Arms as summer reading is IMHO (sorry) – torture.

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My daughter, an avid reader by anyone’s standards, fought her way through The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby, The Crucible, Black Boy, Animal Farm, and many others relying primarily on Sparknotes for true understanding. These are all great books being forced upon the wrong audience. Is this simply a means to meet the state curriculum? Which, by the way, has no finished works written post 1970 on the latest framework found online (updated 2011). No wonder high school students give up on reading. Their time is limited. What they read for school is often all they have time for. The agony of required reading usurps the joy of reading for pleasure.

Yes, required reading needs to push a student beyond romance and graphic novels. However, if approached differently, could it not be used to instill a healthy reading habit? Instead, it often alienates young minds from the world of books. Require them to read three or four novels over the summer. One contemporary piece the student body chooses to discuss in the classroom and other individual selections. Just allow them to enjoy reading. Foster a habit often started at a young age and solidify readers for life who just someday may choose to pick up a classic, for the fun of it.  images

Follow-up Post: A Teen’s Take on High School Literature Classes

Have your teenagers enjoyed their required reading? Do you have opinions that conflict? Please share in the comments! I am open-minded although, IMHO, I am glad it’s their reading list and not mine.

10 comments

  1. Happy to report that my experience has been different. I had great high school English classes and for the most part so did my two college age daughters. Did we have to read things we didn’t like? Sure, but the discussions and projects around the books made it worthwhile. The AP English curriculum definitely has more recent books, for what that’s worth. I don’t know if they did any creative writing though. I’d say more but this phone keyboard is too tiny!

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  2. Marti, I would agree and say the only way to make changes is by speaking up at the school. Did you talk to the teacher who chose the Hemingway book? I know I hate being forced to read books which I have difficulty getting through. This is certainly a way to turn off readers. Thanks for this honest post.

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    1. I did speak with the teacher. He totally agreed and said he would avoid a couple of his selections for next summer. However, his ready list for the school year wasn’t a whole lot better. One step at a time…

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  3. I loved this post, Marti. Instilling a love of reading is definitely more important than reading certain classics. Once a kid is motivated to read on their own, the world is opened up to them.

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  4. Thank you Marti! I couldn’t agree more. I passed my highschool English classes with flying colors — but the number of books I read in those classes that I wasn’t left hating, well, I can list them. Childhood’s End, the Hot Zone, Anthem, and Brave New World. I can’t look at a Regency novel now without a hopeless sense of dread, and I’m decades away highschool. The reason I excelled in my classes was because I was a voracious reader outside of school. My tastes tended, obviously, towards science fiction and fantasy. It was a mark of how poorly the materials were taught that I still, today, gag at any fantasy based on Arthurian legend — thanks to one of my teachers dragging us through the Once and Future King.

    And the other failure of my English classes? Writing wasn’t taught. Or if it was taught, it was done so awfully, awfully, awfully. In my entire highschool experience — and I include eighth grade in there to pad it a little — I had exactly one opportunity to try my hand at writing a short story based on my own ideas. *One*. And before the story was due, after I had already poured time and love into it, the teacher imposed a rule that the story had to be under ten pages. I was crushed.

    Then there was the travesty of how non-fiction writing was taught. Over and over my teachers told us we had to write essays in some godawful pyramid format. Stick a fork in my eye! I officially learned to write an essay when it came time for the AP English test. I threw away what I had learned about essays and just wrote, finally trusting myself not to use the rules. And I aced that $#@&ing test.

    Yes, I am bitter.

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    1. Oh, and I should caveat this — I went to a Fairfax County school in the 90’s. It was an “excellent” school system.

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      1. Thank you for sharing. I can honestly say my personal high school experience was a little better. I still appreciate some of the reading we did. (I had a slightly ‘off the norm’ literature teacher.) However, I couldn’t agree with you more about writing. Essays we did a lot of but creative writing absolutely none. And, I’m not entirely sure there is a lot of room for it in the curriculum but certainly an introduction would be welcomed.

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