Getting kids to read assigned booksOver the past few years, my colleagues and I have been increasingly frustrated with lack of responsibility in completing reading assignments by students.  It...

Getting kids to read assigned books

Over the past few years, my colleagues and I have been increasingly frustrated with lack of responsibility in completing reading assignments by students.  It seems that students spend more time reading a synopsis of the work than the work itself.  They come to class deceiving the teacher and cheating themselves out of an education.  It seems more and more that we are teaching to ourselves more than the students.  Students will sit there with blank stares, or they will shake their head in agreement with you even though they have no clue what you are saying.  I wonder if other teachers feel the same way as I do, and if so, what do you do that works?  How can English teachers be sure that students are reading the assigned books?  The more technology increases, the more frustrated I become.  What will the future of the English teacher's profession look like?

Expert Answers
jessecreations eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In two schools where I have taught, I have had major issues with teaching novels due to the transient nature of my student population.  Now, for example, I teach a remedial course to 11th grade students in rural Florida.  Any time a junior transfers into my school, they come into my class.  So this means I get a new student several times a quarter.  How can I read a novel if I have students coming in and out like that?  I feel badly trying to say, "Sorry you missed the first 10 chapters; hope you can catch up."  Also, of course, we can only read in class due to the number of books we have, and if I sent the books home they'd all be lost anyway.  So how can I, in a 50-minute class period, get kids to read part of the novel and then have ANY interaction with it whatsoever?

Instead of teaching one collective novel, I use Independent Reading.  Each quarter or so (depending on how fast they read), my students start a book.  They select the book, sometimes with recommendations from me or from our media specialist.  My only requirements are that the book be appropriate for school/age/reading level, and that it be fiction.  Sometimes I have given them a list to choose from, other times I have given them free choice.  Then each week, I have my students do Active Reading notes on their novels.  In my previous school, this was a system I taught the kids; I gave them several types of notations and they chose the appropriate ones for the reading they had done that day.  In my current school, I simply write questions on the board once per week for the students to answer.  Either way, they earn a weekly grade for this, and it helps me monitor their reading.  Then, when they finish their books, I have them do a culminating project or essay on them.

I have taught one novel or one drama before, but it is hard to make sure that every kid reads.  I would assign chapters for homework and then have them do a discussion the following day.  To generate discussion, I had each student write down one question they had or one point to discuss, and put them in a hat.  Then I'd draw them out and we'd talk about them as a class.  This in no way guarantees that every kid reads the book, but it does help the kids who have a hard time understanding the book; they can ask a question without having to do so out loud in front of the class.  Also, by keeping the reading in-class only, I can guarantee that I've done my best to make them read.  Whether they read in small groups, silently as individuals, or out loud as a class (I would usually rotate between these strategies), at least I could monitor their reading.  And, if they chose to use sparknotes or something like it, they were doing it on their own time, and not as a substitute for the reading they were doing in class.

mrs-campbell eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I actually overheard some of my creative writing students-kids who supposedly like English and reading a bit more than the "average" student-talking about this today in class.  They were complaining about how boring the book they were reading in English was, and how after one chapter, they just stopped reading.  Instead, they just listened to the teacher, because she talked so much about it that they got the main gist anyway.  Then, they went on to vent about how when they read a book, they don't read it to figure out why the author put this or that in it, or what the deeper symbolism in the book was.  They didn't give a hoot about any of that, and it made them so angry to have their teacher spend so much time on it.  They just wanted to be doing other things.

This is exactly the attitude that I have faced every time I have tried to teach a novel in-depth.  My first year of teaching, I came into the classroom all naive and sparkling with hope.  Since I had been an AP English student, I just assumed that students would do the reading.  Needless to say, the luster dimmed quickly and I very rapidly readjusted my viewpoint on reality.  And, it just got worse and worse each year.  I would take my expectations down a notch one year, only to find myself so frustrated that I had to take them down yet another notch.  I listened to the AP teachers that spoke of their wonderful discussions of literature, and the 500 books their students read, green with envy (I teach "regular" kids).  I tried group reading, class reading, quizzes (announced and surprise), worksheets, book reports, reading logs, projects, presentations, and every dance, jig, comedy routine, ominious threat, dazzling teaching performance and trick up my sleeve.  All for naught.  So, and this is an awful admission that I am not proud to announce, I pretty much gave up.  I went from trying to teach 4 novels a year, to only 2, and those only in parts.  Instead, I have refocused my efforts on teaching writing, and to do so, use wonderful short stories that can be handled in class time.  I gather short stories from all over to teach the same principles that I was teaching as they read (or to be more accurate, didn't read) longer novels.  You can teach a lot of really great core English concepts through short stories and poems that can be handled within the class time given.

I have had colleagues have more success with younger adolescent literature novels that connect with them more emotionally, and relate to what they care about.  So, choosing more relevant and accessible (meaning, on their reading level, as mentioned above) books, and using short stories instead, can work to fill in the gaps a bit.

charcunning eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I, too, have experienced this as I am sure all English teachers do!

There are 2 things I do to alleviate this problem (never disappears, but these do help at least!)

The first thing I do is create "guided reading" questions for each section of the reading assignment. This helps for two reasons--first, I write the questions about the particular things I want them to notice whether it's figurative language, irony, an important quote or a character. This helps the kids focus on what they are reading for. Many of my students have comprehension and retention issues and this seems to help them. This also helps with difficult concepts such as satire. It goes right over their head unless I alert them to look for it!

Also, the guided reading questions are for a grade, so then the reading directly impacts their class grade.

Next, I make the reading and the assignment due on a certain day and on that day I give a quiz over the assigned section--those that read get easy A's to boost their grades, those that did not find themselves failing pretty quickly (they fix this over time--that "left out" feeling is pretty embarrassing).

On the day the assignment is due, I go around with stickers (yes, high school kids go crazy over stickers, too!) and put one on anyone's paper that is finished with the assignment.

Then we have a class discussion. Those without stickers may complete their assignment while we are discussing...for considerably less points, but at least they get it done and hear about the book--this usually makes them get it together and do the work--not all of them, of course, but more are inspired when they hear the great discussions about everything they missed out on in the book.

The class discussion continues on through the next day and a new reading assignment is given.

Is this a huge pain?? Yep! Sure is!! Is it foolproof? Nope! I wish! But I think this ties the reading more directly to their grades, which inspires more kids to read.

Also, finding good novels that are interesting is so important, too. Starting the year off with an "easier" book works, too.

Kids LOVE books like The Color Purple and The Things They Carried and Into the Wild.

I call this my "sticker method," and it's honestly the only thing I've ever tried that has improved completion rates!!


cburr eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think at least part of the problem here is that all too many students are not truly proficient in reading!  If reading is a laborious chore, or if you don't really understand what you've just read, sitting down to read a whole novel will be heavy sledding.  This is, of course, complicated by the fact that the current generation of students has been raised to expect ultra-instant gratification a la video games.

We would accomplish a lot more if we really worked with kids -- one on one if necessary -- to make sure that they can REALLY read and comprehend!!  I also think we should make sure that kids get the subtleties and subplots of stories before we worry about teaching that the conflicts are either man vs. man, man vs. self, etc etc etc.  Most are more than capable of understanding layers of subtlety -- they certainly get it in their own relationships.  But until they are truly proficient readers they will derive no pleasure from reading about them!!

HI1954 mentions that he used to work to be able to read the newspaper during childhood.  Well, yeah!  That was one of the main vehicles to learn about the world.  Now, kids have so many other ways -- email, IM, Facebook, Twitter, movies, You Tube, music videos, etc etc etc etc.  Most are quite proficient at functioning in those contexts, which are the ones that have become important for them.  To be sure, most of us old farts think that there is little to no complexity of thought involved in most of these venues.  I don't think that's entirely fair, but there is certainly some truth there.  Our challenge as educators is to help kids see that in the world that is important to them there are stories that they can enjoy and learn from.

For tech-savvy boys, I recommend the younger versions of Tom Clancy's (team's) Net Force books.  Another possibility is to get kids to collaborate on building a story around the social intricacies of their own school.

marilynn07 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I feel the same way. I sometimes think that the Accelerated Reader program that is so popular has taught young people to read quickly through a book by skimming to answer 5 questions about plot in order to earn points. The really good books with real meat require more effort than skimming for answers.

I sometimes use paired reading in order to get my students involved in a classic piece.  The other thing I might do is read a chapter a day out loud up to the really interesting part of a book, and then I will tell the students that they need to finish the book if they want to find out what happened.

The Pirates of the Caribbean was a great story starter.  My class read the book a chapter a day, and then watched the popular movie after reading.  They were then able to compare and contrast the books and movies.

Several readers are deeply involved in the Twilight books. After seeing the movie, several students have told me that the books are better.

Unless you read every book out loud, you can't be sure students are reading. I think you have to light the spark and fan it into a flame. Many students resist reading because they really don't know how to read with understanding.

Education in phonics stops around 2nd or 3rd grade. Most students' working vocabulary is about 6th grade or below. Unless students learn how to build vocabulary and read with some understanding, reading is a very onerous task indeed.

If you look at the level of vocabulary in most synopsis works, you will see that the vocabulary is probably no higher than 6th or 7th grade reading level.

hi1954 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

That sounds like a good idea.  Novels are really beyond the attention span of most young people; maybe when I was in the 9th Grade teaching a novel was okay, but even then (1716 or thereabouts!) a lot of the other kids were reluctant.  Short stories, short-short stories, short poems and short biographical sketches are probably the way to go.

I read voraciously from before I started school- I didn't know the ABC's, I just kept looking at the newspaper until I could read it.  Imagine my surprise when, one after the next, my children didn't like to read!  Where I worked the students would read, but they'd do anything to break up the work-projects and therapy sessions.  Our days were mostly spent outdoors, and often in education through work, such as learning math by building new cabins.  Books became important to them, because they did not have constant access to TV, video and other things to take up their time.  I don't know how you regular teachers do it.

Novels just seem to have too much subtlety for teenagers these days to spend the time to appreciate.  But if, like the previous poster, you use shorter pieces, maybe the students will later in life take those lessons and continue to teach themselves.  That seems to be the thing I got more than any other from both my educative process and teaching, to teach the students how to see what they need to know and how to teach it to themselves.

timbrady eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I have always had good luck with students writing letters whenever possible.  Eg., if we're doing "The Scarlet Letter," I have asked students to be either Arthur or Hester (have to try Roger one of these days :)) and then write letters to each other.  I always start with the letters they "wrote" to each other while Hester was waiting to appear on the scaffold.  After that, I have them write once or twice before the meeting in the forest (Chapter 17) and then one letter before the final scaffold scene.  The letter have to show that they understand the situation at the particular time in the novel and they have to explore something of meaning.  They can write the letters at the same time, or they can actually "get" a letter and then "reply."

Although this technique doesn't work for all novels, and might get old if used too much, I find it gets interesting responses.  Even if I don't use it for the entire novel, I often start each class with a 10 minute journaling time in which I paint a scenario in the novel and ask them to write a "letter" (probably should be an email now :)) exploring the situation that I described.

To add a little fun, I have 5 or so volunteer students read their letters aloud.  Then I have the rest of the class vote on the two best and give them extra credit.  Of course, all 5 get some kind of credit for volunteering :)


drmonica eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I find the Socratic seminar an excellent approach to getting students to talk about what they have read. I also am very much in favor of teacher-run discussion boards, because students who may not speak up in class may very well be the ones reading most closely and with valuable insights to offer. A discussion board provides students the opportunity to post observations, answer questions, and demonstrate in their own words (easily checkable!) that they have in fact done the reading. Another technique I have used with great success is to provide a pre-discussion free write activity, prompting students to compare the events in the book to popular culture.

The teacher who administers reading quizzes and then proceeds to lecture & dominate the book discussion will have a difficult time engaging the students.

rshaffer eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I thank everyone for the thoughtful, insightful posts to my question on getting students to read.  I am thinking about several suggestions presented in each post.  Surprisingly, the short story got lost in my course over the years, and I don't know why.  I agree with idea that short stories may be the way to go, at least at the beginning of the year.  There are thousands of good short stories that will service the skills of a novel.  I agree that students can handle a shorter piece better than a longer piece of literature.  Poems, well they are another story.  Students seem to have greater difficulty with poetry than anything else.  This may present another discussion board topic from me in the future :)

rshaffer eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Thank you post #10.  Your ideas are helpful.  I like have the reading tied to their grades more.  I agree that having a grade directly for an assignment seems to motivate most students.  I wish it were different, but that is a reality.  I still wonder if you are able to come up with enough questions that are different from so many of the cliffnotes, ragnotes etc. sites that are out there?  This seems to be another problem with quizzing students.  We still can't be sure the students are reading the actual book.  I also like the idea of giving stickers.  I agree that even high school students like getting them :)

accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Very interesting approaches and some of these strategies, especially like the "stick" ones that result in students losing marks and getting low grades, I use myself. But I am still left asking the question as to whether I should ethically and morally be having to introduce measures to force students to read books. Shouldn't they have to learn to read for readings sake or even just because it was set for homework? By introducing such measures which force reading to be completed are we actually taking away something of the joy of reading because we want to read?