Every year I share the story of my husband and how he hated reading for most of his life with my students. I used to share it because it was unfathomable to me; how can anyone hate reading? But in the past few years, I share it so the students know that hating reading and feeling like a bad reader is not a box that should define them.
Yesterday, as I told the story to my 7th graders, head nods all around as I explained how my husband would rather ride his bike than read a book. He knew he was a slow and bad reader, so why even bother when the world has so much else to offer? I asked the students; why is reading hard? Why do we think we are bad readers? One boy raised his hand and said, “I was told I couldn’t read a book because it wasn’t at my level…” More head nods, and I cringed a little, pretty sure I have told students something similar at some point. But still I asked them, “What else has happened to you?”
One shared the story of being told to read other genres to break out of their preference, another of the five finger rule and how it was enforced. A girl told us of how easy books were not allowed, only the ones deemed “Just right.” Stories of forced books, worksheet packets, and reading logs arose and my mortification grew because I know I have said and done all of those things. But these kids were telling me how harmful it had been, not helpful as I had thought every time I said it.
I wonder how often our sage reading advice hurts rather than helps? I wonder how often our great intentions damage what we are trying to build? I know that students need guidance when it comes to growing as readers, but are levels, forced books, and “just right” the way to do it? In our helpfulness are we instead creating reading boxes that our students cannot break free from? I told my students that I would never define them by their level and that the books they choose to read need to be just right for them. Just right at this time in their life. Just right for what they want to do. That can mean many things and it can change through time.
I end with the story of how my husband realized at the age of 35 that he was not a bad reader. He was a slow reader, yes, but that did not make him bad. He realized that had he had more choice, more books, something else in his younger age who knows what would have happened. The past is out of his hands but the future he controls. So as he slowly makes his way through books, he is becoming a reader. I tell my students that they have control of the label they give themselves and to not let that label hinder them. We have all been “bad” readers at some point, we chose what to do with that label. It is my job to help them with that, not give them more boxes to hold them back.
I am a passionate teacher in Wisconsin, USA, who has taught 4, 5th, and 7th grade. Proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day. First book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students” can be purchased now from Powerful Learning Press. Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” is out now from Corwin Press. Follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.