Bridging the Gap: How a Bookworm Learned to Teach Kids Who “Hate Reading” by Wendy Falconer Gassaway
Reading has always been my number one favorite thing to do. This makes me, frankly, a little weird to many of my students. However, it turns out that my passion for reading, rather than separating me from my students, is my greatest tool for reaching out to them.
Growing up, I was a read in bed by the hallway light reader, a pat down before class so she doesn’t sneak read while you’re teaching reader, a yes you can join the summer reading contest, but we’re going to give the prize to second place this year, okay? reader. Most of my friends were readers too–maybe not to the extent I was, but then, they all had TVs at their house. We went to the library together, we read aloud to each other, we shared favorite authors and titles (and which pages to look at for the scandalous parts of Judy Blume’s Forever).
So imagine my confusion when I started teaching and discovered that there are kids who don’t like reading. And because I taught second language learners and struggling students, most of my students said they didn’t like reading. What do you mean, you don’t like it? I wanted to ask. It’s stories. What’s not to like?
I knew that it was partly because reading was hard for them. It’s not like I’ve ever picked up a book in a foreign language for fun. But still, I didn’t quite get what it was like to not be a reader at all. It became a lot clearer one day in my first year of teaching, during SSR. I was reading A Walk in the Woods, and kept bursting into giggles. “How can a book make you laugh?” Ivan asked suspiciously. “It’s just words on paper.”
Of course they can, I told him. Books make you laugh, and books make you cry. “Cry!?!” he scoffed.. “Why would anyone cry about a book?” I asked him if he’d ever seen anyone cry while watching a movie. “Well, yeah, but that’s different!” he told me. “That’s real people, and you can imagine it’s really happening!”
Oh. We were not (forgive me) on the same page at all.
I understand now that “I hate reading,” is actually code for “I feel stupid when I read,” or “I refuse to read books at my embarrassingly low reading level, so I never have any idea what’s going on.” This is so sad to me. These kids are missing out on the beauty, comfort, refuge, challenge, and joy of books. Their lack of reading confidence and skill also means that every single day of school is harder than it needs to be, that every encounter with grade level print chips away further at their confidence, and their connection to education.
Once I finally understood that my reading life was very different from most of my students’, I started my ongoing journey to get better at connecting kids to books, individually and collectively. The moments when I succeed are among the highlights of my job — as one colleague says, “I got a raise today,” whenever a kid falls in love with a book, or makes a connection to reading they’d never made before.
My first Jose Sanchez (out of six so far) was a snarky, social kid. He’d prop his feet up on the desk, pull out his headphones (so long ago that he had a CD player, not an iPod) and express mock indignation when I tried to rectify the situation. The 8th graders were studying the Civil War, and I’d just discovered this incredible little novel called Nightjohn, narrated by 12 year old slave girl who wanted to learn to read and write. Halfway through the book, Jose said, “Hey, this is really cool, because we’re learning about this stuff in history class, and this book, like, makes it more real. It actually makes me care about what was going on.” I tried to hide my smile.
Another year, another Paulsen novel. For variety, I read Soldier’s Heart with my ELD class while they studied the Civil War in history.. “You know, I always assumed I’d join the army when I got older,” Sergio told me. “But I’ve been thinking about this book, and I realized it would actually be pretty upsetting to kill people. I never thought about that part before.” Without editorializing on whether or not Sergio should join the military, the simple act of looking at life with new eyes is part of what literature brings to us.
Just a few months ago, as part of our team’s Self Manager program, we took twenty kids to Powell’s City of Books. We’d solicited funds and were able to give each kids money towards a book. “But reading is so boooooring,” sighed Sierra. “I like movies, and I even like being read to, but I HATE reading to myself.” Still, she managed to find a book in the YA section with a catchy cover. Monday morning she came tearing into my class, clutching the book. “I’m on chapter 19!” she announced. “I couldn’t put it down all weekend! It is SO GOOD! And there’s more in the series!” Once she finished it, she insisted that I read it, and I bought the sequels for my classroom, and we continued to talk about the book, the characters, and the author for the rest of the school year. I was able to offer suggestions of other romantic dystopian novels, now that we’d found something that grabbed her.
It still breaks my heart a little each time a kid tells me they don’t like to read, but it no longer baffles me. I’m ready for them. I have a print-drenched lifetime of experience that has prepared me to show them why and how to change that.
Wendy Falconer Gassaway teaches ELA in middle school in Oregon. She spent the summer reading YA and MG books, working on her book blog, and claiming it was all for her job.