I had a question from a student.
“How did you learn to like reading?”
I thought for a moment.
“I don’t remember not liking it.”
His face fell.
Here is a student who wants to learn. This is the thing all teachers dream of. We think our jobs, nay, our lives would be so much better (unicorns and rainbows!) if only all students would feel this way. It’s a lot to ask. Teenagers are not well known for thinking logically, taking responsibility or making good decisions. Wanting to learn, and figuring out how to learn, are not easy things to do.
To get to this stage, I figure this student has already achieved a number of impressive feats.
First, he has discovered that the world and everything in it does not exist for the sole purpose of ensuring his comfort, happiness and awesomeness.
This is big. A friend of mine recently posted the following on Facebook: “Students with a 22 percent attendance are angry about failing grades.” Unfortunately, this is becoming more and more common. Yet my Questioning Student has not fallen into this trap.
Yes, he exists, which, when you think about it, is pretty damn impressive.
Yes, he shows up to school.
Yes, he mostly pays attention.
He even does his assignments!
In spite of all this, I do not plaster his work with that sought-after grade: Excellence.
And instead of blaming me, school in general, his parents, or just pretending not to care like most of his peers, he has decided to take responsibility for this himself. Winning!
Secondly, he recognises that this state of non-excellence is not permanent. “What?” I hear the horrified cries. “But I thought people were either smart or stupid!” “What about the notion of a ‘straight-A student’?” “How dare you challenge my tidy world of absolutes and suggest a Growth mindset?!”
He knows he can improve his grades, and to do this he has to learn things, do things differently and ask questions. Gold star right there!
Thirdly, he has made a connection between enjoyment and success. He’s figured out that, in order to do well in English, he needs to find a way to enjoy reading. Just as those who do well in maths enjoy the satisfaction of a problem neatly solved, and those who do well in technology enjoy creating something physical, those who do well in English enjoy words and language.
Sometimes I wish I could give a student an Excellence for this kind of learning. It’s the reason I got into teaching in the first place: to teach students how to learn. Unfortunately, there are no Excellences for those who learn the implicit curriculum, and the explicit curriculum requires the boy to actually read a couple of books.
So how do I teach him to learn to like reading? My own love for books is already clear in my classroom – if it wasn’t, he wouldn’t have thought I’d be able to answer him, would he? So leading by example clearly isn’t enough.
I can only teach what I know. So I must inspect my own relationship with reading.
I’ve been told that on my third birthday, I said to dad, “I get three stories now, because I’m three” when he tried to get away with reading me my regular two bedtime stories (the nerve!). I was reading at the age of four. I actually don’t remember not being able to read, not enjoying reading, or or not wanting to read more. In Form 1, my teacher had to adapt certificates from the Read In Bed – It’s Terrific! (RIB-IT!) programme after I passed the 20 books read! and 30 books read! marks, and just kept going until I hit 90 and more.
In Fourth Form – that dreaded year now known as Year 10, when even ‘good’ students like me rebelled and broke rules and tortured teachers and unleashed bad attitude on the world – I stood in the library during an English lesson and complained to my English teacher: “There’s nothing to read!” with the arrogance only a fourteen year old can truly convey. Mr Bathgate tried not to cringe. He tried not to show how hurt he was, but I saw it and tried to hide my victorious smirk (fourteen year olds are too cool to show emotion, even when they think they’ve finally broken a teacher). His pain only lasted a moment before he accepted the challenge, though. Within half an hour he had me hooked on Bryce Courtenay’s The Potato Factory. Even in my rebellion I couldn’t resist a good book. And, I’ll be honest, I was embarrassed when he pointed out how stupid it was to make such a claim in the middle of a library. No matter how much I pretended no to care, I hated the thought that a teacher might think I wasn’t intelligent. I have certainly suffered from a Fixed Mindset most of my life. (And no, he didn’t actually use the word ‘stupid,’ he was a good teacher. I credit him with re-igniting my passion for reading, though with a combination of right book, right time, I guess it would have happened eventually anyway.)
So what do I love about reading?
I love getting wrapped up in events that I could never physically experience.
I love meeting new people (characters), who make me see things differently.
I love the way words fit together in so many different ways, and how each time you change the way they go together, you change the meaning. I love the tiny changes and the drastic ones.
I love the sense of accomplishment that comes with finishing a book – and the sense of gaining something for having read it, along with the sense of losing something for having finished it.
I love that I can spend time with individual words and sentences, rolling them around and trying them out in my mind. I love how I can go back and re-read parts. I love how I can skip a paragraph or a page if I don’t want to read it. To me, it’s easier than re-watching or fast-forwarding a film, or replaying or skipping a song, and it’s certainly preferable to real life, which has no such convenient functions.
I love how the physical act of reading calms me down and helps me sleep.
The main thing that makes a book better than a film is that I have more control over how things and people look. In John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars, my Hazel is short and lumpy, not at all like Shailene Woodley in the film. In Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi, my Pi looks like a boy I knew when I was ten – the first boy of Indian descent I’d ever seen in real life, and the second boy I ever had a crush on. And Richard Parker sat on the floor watching me as I read. In Rowling’s Harry Potter series, there were far more pointy hats in my version than the film versions, and the school uniforms weren’t quite so… school uniform-y.
The other advantage to a book over a film is the amount of time you spend with the characters, or in a place. You get to know the characters more, simply because it takes longer to read a book than it does to watch a film. You become more intimate with them. When you close the pages for the night, you think about them as you drift off to sleep, and you wonder about them while you’re at school the next day, and by the time you get back to actually opening the book again, you’ve spent a whole day or a whole lifetime with them, and you understand them that much more, and you feel what they feel that much more.
Reading is an exercise of my imagination. It helps me organise my thoughts. It helps me try new ways of thinking.
But that still doesn’t answer the question: How do you learn to like reading?
I can only guess at things that might work.
- Tell yourself you like it. If you make yourself smile every time you wash the dishes, you eventually start to think that washing the dishes makes you smile. The power of positive thinking cannot be overstated.
- If you start reading something and you hate it, you don’t have to finish it. There’s a lot to be said for perseverance, and I encourage seasoned readers to read things they think they wouldn’t like, but for reluctant readers, I think the trick is to keep trying different things until you find something you like. It doesn’t have to be just books: magazines, the newspaper, websites, the narrative of games, I even encourage the reading of Facebook – if you’re reading and you’re enjoying it, keep it up.
- Try to associate reading with other positives, and avoid negatives. If the only time you ever read is for homework, of course you won’t like it. You’ve been conditioned to hate homework. Read in a place that you’re comfortable, when you have time to really get into it. Consciously make it a pleasant experience.
Of course, if your awful English teacher has assigned you a book that you have to read by the end of the term or else, and you hate every single word, and each paragraph is a struggle, and pages seem to last for hours, there’s not much you can do about it (except maybe the first one – though if you already believe you hate it, it can be hard to turn your thinking around). I’ve been there. William Golding. Lord of The Flies. Sixth Form English with Mrs Cameron (who happened to be one of my favourite teachers). It felt to me like a physical ache. The reading of it was so bad that I’ve repressed any memories I might have of writing about it. And yet, now that I think about it, I enjoy exploring the ideas it raises. But Golding’s name still makes me sieze up in dread. Chalk it down to one of those character-building, life-scarring things that you have to do to make it through high school and come out human on the other side.