In my inbox this past week was an article by Alan Jacobs titled “We Can’t Teach Students to Love Reading” published July 31, 2011, in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The title grabbed my attention; I rankled seeing the combination of “We Can’t Teach” with the word “Reading.” I have been reflecting on his argument and on one statement in particular: “No novel or play or long poem will offer its full rewards to someone who consumes it in small chunks and crumbs. The attention it demands is the deep kind.”
The “We” in the title could mean many different stakeholders: parents, teachers, administrators, education policy makers, academics. For the purposes of this response, however, I will generalize “We” to mean the teachers in the classrooms; those “boots on the ground” educators.
We can’t teach students to love reading does not mean that we cannot teach students to read, or to read better, or to appreciate what they read. I would argue that no one can teach anyone to love something or someone; love is a choice of the heart or the mind.
But that is not Jacob’s argument. He argues that there have always been people who read deeply as opposed to the shallow readers or grazers of information. He suggests that literacy today is not altogether different than the practice of literacy from the Middle Ages through the 20th Century. There have always been few readers in the past who engaged in long and focused reading, states Jacobs, “Serious ‘deep attention’ reading has always been and will always be a minority pursuit.”
As a high school English teacher, I confront readers and non-readers every day in the classroom. Most students do not read with “serious deep attention.” I also appreciate how difficult deep reading is for my students given the hyperactive environments of school and the hyper-connected environments after school: digital devices are distracting; sports are demanding; jobs may be necessary. However, reading is the skill that is paramount in education.
So, I believe schools must carve out time for reading. I believe that teachers and administrators need to set aside time for reading in all disciplines. I believe adjustments must be made to schedules in order to provide quiet time for students to read, and for teachers to demonstrate how one can read deeply in such environments. Once students have developed the skills to read and acquired a positive attitude towards reading through practice, they may choose to read out-of-school. They may read for fun.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that “students who read for fun almost every day outside of school scored higher on NAEP assessment of reading achievement than children who read for fun only once or twice a month,” and much higher than students who did not read for fun at all.
I also believe that teachers should offer student choice in reading as suggested in Kelley Gallagher’s Readicide (a philosophy which is the driving force behind this blog) at every opportunity. We should allow for student choice in reading coupled with reading for fun, as Gallagher says, “not for analyzing the author’s tone…not for the multiple choice question. Reading for fun.”
At the middle school and high school levels, we can offer students a choice of contemporary coming of age novels when they are assigned JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. We can offer students a chance to read real life adventures when they are assigned Homer’s The Odyssey. Or, we can simply let students pick a book they want to read. These combination of factors can help improve student reading.
Jacobs himself admits he has “retrained his brain” and recovered his ability to read deeply through the technology of the e-book; he speculates that students who have, “never seriously read for information or for understanding, or even for delight—can learn how.” Yet, we owe our students the opportunity to develop a desire to read for fun beyond the school day, since Jacobs notes that, “Slow and patient reading…. properly belongs to our leisure hours.”
There are many factors which lead Jacobs to his conclusion, “All this is to say that the idea that many teachers hold today, that one of the purposes of education is to teach students to love reading—or at least to appreciate and enjoy whole books—is largely alien to the history of education.” While Jacobs may be correct about teachers and education’s historical role in contributing to the love of reading, there are teachers today who are promoting choice, providing time, and welcoming new technologies in improving student reading. Perhaps their response to Jacobs could be in an article titled, “We Can Make Students Better Readers Who Have Developed ‘Deep Attention’ By Offering Time and Choice.” Deep reading should not be a minority pursuit.