being a student, discussion, Literacy, Reading, Reading Identity, student driven

Questions to Ask When the Kids Aren’t Reading

You may have noticed that this blog is slowing down a bit, while life continue to churn, I am slowly starting to work on a new book potentially. This means that there may be less brand-new writing on here and instead a mix of from the archives and new. The wonderful thing with continuing to be a teacher is that our teaching, hopefully, evolves as does our understanding of the work we do. With that I present to you a reworking of an older post from 2015.

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I met my first book abandoner my very first year of teaching.  Yet, he was not your average run of the mill book abandoner.  No, he was the “look you straight in the eye and ask you what you are going to do about it” kind of abandoner.  So I did what I knew best; forced him to read the book and not allow him to abandon it.  And he did what he knew best; fake read for a good amount of time, skimmed a few pages, and failed the book report as well as the presentation.  Repeat with every book.  I don’t think he ever read anything beside “Diary of A Wimpy Kid” that year, and that was to spite me more than anything as I forced him into my choice of book time and time again. because I figured that when he couldn’t pick a book it was up to me to do it. When he couldn’t pick a book it was up to me to create accountability.

Everyone has these types of readers.  The ones that abandon book after book because they hate to read, always have, always will.  The ones that abandon book after book because they cannot find a great book, or perhaps they found one once, or perhaps they never have.  The ones that abandon book after book because they get bored easily and while a book may have started great, now it is just meh.  Some years we have a lot, others not so many.  

Often for every child that abandons a book, there is a conversation missing, one that we need to engage them in in order to break the cycle. One that centers on one of the true goals of reading which is that the children we teach should be able to leave us being able to find a book that they are wanting to try on their own, without relying on artificial supports such as their level, their Lexile, or their teacher because they inherently know themselves better as readers.

This conversation takes time, it takes patience, and it takes diving into all of the many components that centers around the giving up a book. While often it may be seen as a rash decision made from an overall disinterest in reading, one that we dismiss when we hand a child another book to try, it is important that we dive into the nuances surrounding book abandonment in order for a child to know themselves more every time they abandon one. Make the act of abandonment one of internal reflection so that it no longer becomes automatic but instead becomes a choice that they can use to further investigate who they are as a reader.

This, therefore, means that there are questions we should be asking of our programming as well as the children that choose to leave yet another failed read in their wake. These questions shape the future decisions they make as well as their overall journey into their own reading identity.

Do they have choice?  Because if they don’t, then that is the very first place we start.  And not limited choice based on levels, Lexiles, or AR scores, but real honest-to-goodness choice where they get to pick their reading materials out of all the reading materials we have. This includes choosing the format and how to access it. Even as they abandon book after book, that choice needs to be protected at all costs, because while we may think that limiting choice will help them in the short-term, that’s exactly the problem with this approach, it helps in the short-term but does not push them further in their own understanding of book selection that works. So even when it seems like the list of abandoned books is too long to bear, let them continue to choose as there are other perimeters to consider.

Do they have time to actually book shop? Often we ask kids to quickly select a book and then wonder why they seem to not be invested in the choice they make, yet, if we study our own adult reading habits we know that leisurely browsing through selections is a pillar of how we choose books. So what are the time constraint placed on students? Do they have time to look through books, try a few pages, sit with a book for a while before they fully commit? Do they have time to speak to their peers about potential titles? Book shopping should be a social endeavor not one done in solitude if they don’t want to, so what are the conversations that need to happen as they browse?

Do they have time to read? If little time is given to reading then we are expecting them to do something they may not like only outside of school.  That is foolish and also malpractice when it comes to the use of our time. Every child, every day, should be engaged in supported independent reading. So when can they read in class and try on the book? When can they be under the guidance of a trained adult that can help them navigate difficult concepts or words?

Do they have access?  We know that students need great books in their hands.  We know students need great libraries coupled with a librarian, but they also need books in our classrooms.  And not old, worn out books, but new, enticing, high-interest books that they can check out easily. So when are they surrounded by books to choose from, what are those choices? Can they check the books out and bring them home or do they have to be kept in class? Yes, I lose books every year, but it is worth it to me if it helps a child read.

Are they overwhelmed? One student I taught told me 6 months into the year that our classroom library was simply overwhelming to browse in. That he didn’t know where to start despite my labels and bins. It took that long for him to tell me because he didn’t trust me with the information, afraid that I would think it silly or stupid, and yet, I didn’t think anything like that. What a way to know oneself! Once he had told me, we were able to create a way for him to browse specific sections of the library that he liked and able to pull out books from large stacks that I would pull for him. As he gradually got more comfortable, I was able to pull back my support.

Do they see themselves in the books?  We discuss students needing windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors in their reading lives as crafted by Dr. Rudine Simms Bishop, but do we also evaluate the stories we have? Are we making sure that we are not just crafting a new cannon of sorts that continues to misrepresent marginalized populations or only share one aspect of someone’s journey? What reading choices are the students surrounded by? Is it culturally responsive such as how Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings discusses? Will it further a perhaps damaging narrative that they already have about others, or will it break down misconceptions, stereotypes, and harmful thinking?

Do they have people?  Is it cool to not be a reader in their friend group?  Who do they have to talk books to?  Do they have reading role models that extend beyond the teacher?  Who are the people that have similar tastes as them, that they can speak books with? Many of my students tell me that they don’t have many others to get recommendations from despite being in book-rich environments for years and teachers working specifically on this. So how else can we increase the natural book conversations, students are having in order for them to make connections with the reading tastes of others? I often invite kids to book shop together so that they can find books together, we also use book talks for this as students discover others with similar tastes as them. Also, who are the adults that can speak books to them? It should never be just the classroom teacher, invite your librarian in, create a rich reading community so that students can see many readers int heir day, and many opportunities to speak books.

Do they have reason to read?  And by that, I don’t mean because of a prize or a reward.  Do they see any kind of gain from reading?  Is anything positive connected to the art of reading?  Will it actually make their lives better or is it just one more thing to do? Many of my students who abandon books repeatedly do it because they see no point and until we start to help them see a point of reading that goes beyond “the adults make me do it” then it is going to be hard to break any kind of habits. So how can we stress the importance of reading, what is it they want to accomplish in their lives where reading plays a central role? Is is that they want to understand others? Understand the world? Or is it much smaller than that?

Do they have different ways to read?  Reading is not just done with our eyes but also with our ears, so if a child is constantly abandoning books get them hooked on an incredible audio book.  This has changed the reading path of several of my students in a profound way. Sometimes getting them into text is what makes a difference, especially if they would like to read a book that may be difficult for them to decode independently, why not use audio books as a way to help them become invested in a text? Then we can work on the decoding separately.

Are they hiding gaps?  I have taught several students that could ace their reading assessment, mostly because it had been given to them so many times, and yet had a large gap in their skills.  So is their book abandonment masking a larger problem such as not actually understanding what they are reading or not having developed the stamina to stay with the story? Is reading seen as something emotionally draining because it is incredibly difficult? We cannot dismiss the emotions that are attached with reading for many kids, especially our vulnerable readers, and so we must work on developing their understanding of themselves as readers along with the skills of reading. This requires trust.

Are we making them do things that kill their love of reading?  When students abandon books a lot, it is a sure sign that we need to reflect on our own practices.  And not just skim over that reflection and pretend that everything must be ok.  Are reading logs killing their love of reading?  Are programs liked Accelerated Reader or LLI?  Are we constantly asking them to do things with their reading rather than “just” read? What else is attached to our reading that may make a child abandon rather than finish a book?

Have we asked them?  This is the biggest component needed because too often we try to figure out why a child is abandoning books and we never ask them why.  Not beyond the “What didn’t you like about it?”  So instead we must give the students a chance to discuss or reflect and really start to study their own habits.  What patterns do they see?  What types of books might they like to read?  What can they do to change their habits?  Students need to feel empowered in their self-reflection because otherwise, their pattern won’t change.  They also need to set goals and then be able to honestly assess their own progress. This is part of the much larger work that must be centered in who they are as readers and how they want to take control of their reading identity.

Do they trust you? Trust is often something that is taken for granted in our classrooms, as if by simply being together, we build trust, and yet that is not true. Often we have to work hard to earn the trust of students, particularly those whose school experiences have not been safe or those whose lives are different than the ones we lead. Trust takes many things; choosing to be vulnerable, creating a calm and safe space, acknowledging our own limitations as a teacher and adult, recognizing our own limited experience of the world, and also being genuinely invested in the success of every child no matter where they are in their journey. We earn trust, plain and simple, and we do it by showing up, asking questions, actively listening, and passing no judgment. By investing into the lives of each child, by partnering with those at home, and by removing shame as a tool in our learning environments. By expanding our tools as a teacher, and more importantly our knowledge so that we can do better. Often students tell me much later in the year why they really hate reading or why they abandon book after book but it takes time for them to feel that I deserve the truth. Sometimes they are not sure why until much later. Until they do, I engage them in conversation both planned in our reading conferences and casual, I congratulate them on the accomplishments they do have, and I continue to provide them with the tools I can think of to help them be successful. It takes time, it takes patience, and it takes trusting your students even if they don’t trust you.

Abandoning books is often seen as an irritating habit that we must break quickly at all costs when it comes to students, but what if it instead is viewed as a starting point for a deep and nuanced exploration into the reading journey that a child is on? Think of the conversations we can have.

If you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.. If you like what you read here, consider reading my latest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.     

8 thoughts on “Questions to Ask When the Kids Aren’t Reading”

  1. Where are you finding good audiobooks? I’m really struggling to find titles for grade seven. Have checked my library, Libby, Hoopla, Overdrive, Vook and Epic. Coming up empty!

  2. I noticed you mentioned LLI in the list of things that kill reading. Can you expand on this? Our school recently adopted it, and my own child is receiving it in SPED. Unfortunately, I do not yet know enough about it, so I appreciate hearing your thoughts!

    1. I think it is important no matter the program to keep an eye on how it affects the love of reading for the students involved. My own experience with LLI has been a mixed one; some kids don’t mind, others hate it. When we adopt programs, I think it is important that we continue to keep an eye on the big picture, the program needs to provide the specific skill instruction but also not damage that child’s relationship with reading. If damage is occurring then we need to tweak or change the program.

      1. I couldn’t agree more! That has always been at the forefront for us-reading is hard for our daughter, but she loves it. Keeping that the same is essential! We also have our thumb on her interventions this year. 3 meetings already and a 4th on the calendar. Lack of progress is not ok.

  3. I love this and have been able to inspire students of all ages to read for 20 years using many of the methods you write about. The problem student I have is my own child. I read to him at night, we listen to Harry Potter together but he will NOT pick up a book independently to read. He is 8 and would rather do just about anything than read. He is able to read and he reads well. He has access to so many books. I am trying not to push because I do not want to push so hard he will resent books forever. I am at a loss. Any suggestions when the student is your own?

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