I have watched her every day, picking up a book, reading, kind of, and then at the end of class casually placing it into the return bin of our classroom. Another book abandoned. Another story given up. In the past, I would have grabbed that book and handed it back to her. ” Give it another day or so. This one you’re sticking with.” But not now. Not anymore.
I used to think that when a child abandoned a book, they simple had not given it enough of a chance. That the act of abandonment was a badge of honor; look at how I am not reading! That they abandoned books because it was a way to not read, after all, you cannot read when you do not have a book.
So I helped them by creating rules… You cannot abandon a book until you are 50 pages in. You can only abandon one book, then the next one you have to read. You must tell me when you abandon a book so we can discuss why. The rules were meant to discourage it, to make abandoning a book a hassle, to inspire students to give the book a proper chance. And they kind of followed them, or I thought they did, until I noticed that the students were no longer abandoning books, instead they were fake reading, getting the timing just right of their meticulous page turns, yet their eyes were not on the page. My helpful rules had thus created a bigger problem; children who would rather sit and do nothing but turn a page rather than read a boring book.
Yet, I now know that book abandonment is a sign of a larger problem. That it is not something most students pride themselves on but instead becomes yet another sign that reading is seemingly not for them. That book abandonment becomes proof of their failures as readers. And the students seem to not know what to do about it. So if teaching 7th graders (and 5th graders, and 4th graders) has taught me anything it is that we have to face it head on. So I had to find a new approach, we had to bring book abandonment into the limelight and embrace it for the reading beast it is. Therefore, in our classroom, we…
Share our own abondenments. I celebrate my book abandoning because it tells the students that I am reader who knows herself. That I am tuned in to my own reading needs to find a book that works for me at that moment. And that those needs change depending on what is going on in my life. Students need an abandonment role model so that the stigma can be removed and the conversations can begin. Because that is what we need; more discussion. More reflection. I never tear a book apart, I instead explain why it is not a great fit for me right now, and then offer it up to others. Most of the time someone grabs it and proves me wrong.
Log it. No, not a reading log, I don’t need to know minutes or pages read, but instead a list of books they have finished and books they have abandoned. They have a readers notebook in our classroom that has a section for this so they can easily do it in class. Students need to have a way to examine their own actions, and so the simple sheet with the title on it helps them do just, which leads to the next thing.
Ask why. Assume that all students abandon books, not just the “bad” readers and then ask them why they abandoned that book specifically. Have them examine their own habits so that they can figure out who they are as a reader. My students reflect on their reading habits several times a quarter so that they can see patterns. They look at their list of books they loved and books they didn’t so they can get clues to what they like to read, and then start to pay attention to it. They need to study themselves, and be given the time to do so, so they can learn from this rather than just view it as an inevitable part of their reading habits.
Ask “Now what?” Too often our students expect us to come up with the answer, to hand them the next book. I have learned that while we should support their book browsing, we also need to pull back to let them become “Wild readers” as Donalyn Miller says. Readers who know who they are and what they like. So when a child abandons a book and ask me for another recommendation, I ask them to look at their To-Be-Read list, to think for a moment about what they need right now, what their life looks like, and how much energy they have. They then have to find a stack of books to browse through so they can find their next read. They usually let me know at the end what they pick, not because they have to, but because they want to share their find.
Practice total honesty. I ask my students to be completely honest in their reading habits, whether when we speak or when they reflect, because if they are not I cannot help them. They have to trust me to not punish them or somehow degrade their answers. And I don’t. Total honesty is paramount to how we work in our classroom. And that starts with me; I do not sugarcoat my own habits. If I did not read the night before they know. If I am dragging in a book, they know. And they also know my reading goals because I set them right alongside them.
Ask probing questions. I will ask a child the harder questions, I will ask them if they are just giving up because they are in a pattern of giving up. I will ask them if they think they should try a few more pages or if they have given it careful thought. That does not mean there are rules for when you abandon, but I do want to make sure that the decision to abandon is one that they know should be carefully considered. That yes, sometimes we know after 1 page that we do not want to read a book, and that is perfectly fine, as long as we know why we don’t want to read anymore.
Have an enticing library. Many researchers have solidified the need for incredible classroom libraries, and yes, I know that means that we probably pay for the books out-of-pocket. But it is worth it. Having students be able to immediately try to find another book can be both a blessing and a curse, but in the end, I would rather have a child that is faced with many choices than one who has to wait for a pass or our scheduled time to go to the library to get one.
Creating classrooms where students are passionate about reading, requires many things; a great classroom library, time to read, choice, and also the courage to break some of the rules that surround traditional reading instruction. That includes facing book abandonment head on. What have you tried that has worked?
PS: For ideas on how to get reluctant readers to read, read this.
If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students. The 2nd edition and actual book-book (not just e-book!) just came out!