Maybe reading ISN’T fun

A friend of mine who teaches in a high poverty school dropped me a really discouraging email today.

She told me that a training specialist assigned to her school had dropped in to one of their faculty’s vertical articulation meetings to offer feedback on the school’s attempts to integrate annotation into their reading instruction.

Her message was less than inspirational, though.  Here’s the most disturbing quote:

“I tell kids this is not fun…This is work, and most of the reading you’ll do in life will not be for fun.”

My first reaction was to load up the digital bazooka and blaze this woman.

Not only can annotating text be fun when teachers decide to tap into the social nature of today’s students and integrate  shared annotation tools like Diigo into their work—something I’ve written extensively about before—but what kind of failed thinking leads any teacher to tell kids that “most of the reading you’ll do in life will not be for fun.”

Then, I just plain felt bad for the woman. 

As a guy who is literally consumed by reading—I probably finish 60 books a year and damn near all of them are fun even when they are tied to my profession—I want everyone to feel the same rush that comes from getting lost in a new title for a few hours.

More importantly, I want every student to know a teacher who loves reading more than most anything.  That modeling matters.

But then I started to think that maybe—just maybe—this woman might be right.  Maybe reading—especially in high-poverty schools—ISN’T fun.

I mean, here’s just a FEW reasons why reading isn’t fun—for teachers or for students—anymore:

Reading is used as a school-quality indicator in almost every building on earth.

That means the stakes are high and the pressure is on reading teachers—and their principals, and their staff developers, and their superintendents—all the time.

Holy heck:  In California, they’ve gotten to the point where newspapers publish teacher ratings based on reading and math scores—a move that may have led one educator to end his life.

No wonder teachers have a hard time spreading the word that reading is fun.  When public humiliation is the consequence for poor test scores, it’s hard to see reading as anything other than a chore.

And more importantly, when public humiliation is the consequence for poor reading scores, it’s hard to inspire a true love of reading in your students.  That professional resentment has got to have an impact on the message our teachers are sending our kids about reading, don’t you think?

Reading is used as a promotion gateway in almost every building on earth.

That means the stakes are equally high for every student every time that they step into a reading classroom.  The pressure in many places is so great that struggling students see elective classes and recess periods replaced with reading remediation sessions until their eyes bleed.

Worse yet, struggling students are often exposed to drill-and-kill, uber-scripted reading lessons that no one could ever enjoy—and if they attend the neediest schools, they are far more likely to have under-qualified teachers delivering those lessons.

Are we having fun yet?

Kids don’t have the background knowledge necessary to succeed in content area reading classes.

One of the points that has sat in the back of my mind ever since spending three days studying Readicide with author and reading expert Kelly Gallagher is that every time we cut minutes for science and social studies instruction from the school day—a common occurrence in Accountability Nation—we kill a reader.

Here’s why:  As students get older, nonfiction reading plays an increasingly important role in their lives.  Having been raised in schools that cut nonfiction classes from the curriculum, however, our kids have no background knowledge to draw from when they’re trying to tackle content-heavy text.

That DOES make reading in science and social studies classes a complete chore for kids.

And every time that students struggle to understand the content-heavy text that they’re asked to work through in classes where they have no background experience to draw from, they’re turned off from nonfiction reading.

It’s one of those vicious-cycle-thingys.

We’ve spent the better part of a decade bribing kids to read.

I’m sure that someone, somewhere meant well when they started reading reward programs like Accelerated Reader and Book It.  After all, what could be better than motivating kids to read?  And what better motivator than earning points to spend towards prizes or pizza!

Every kid loves prizes and pizza, right?

Sure they do.  But—as I explained in a recent Radical post—as soon as you start to incentivize any kind of behavior, you’re screwed.

See, once you start incentivizing behaviors, your intended targets—young readers, in this case—shift from working on social norms to working on market norms.

Translation:  Students go from reading for fun to reading for stuff—and if they’re not sufficiently motivated by the stuff you’ve got to give, they stop reading completely.

Sound familiar?

Does any of this make sense? 

Is it possible that schools—working with the best of intentions in a high stakes world where paranoia over struggling readers has reached a fever pitch—have inadvertently ruined reading for a generation?

What other factors make reading no fun in your buildings and in the lives of your students?

More importantly, what can we do—if anything—to save it?

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