Getting students to actually readMore than once I have had a student tell me, "I haven't read a book in English class since early middle school." Students pass literature classes by reading...

Getting students to actually read

More than once I have had a student tell me, "I haven't read a book in English class since early middle school." Students pass literature classes by reading summaries and listening to me go over the plot in class. This frustrates me, because students are missing so much of the power and the nuance of the original work. But I have been unsuccessful at getting them to actually read.  Any ideas?

37 Answers

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pirateteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Associate Educator

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The AP teachers at our school have students annotate their texts.  This is a great way to have them practice looking for and analyzing the rhetorical devices found in the text, but has also given us a higher success rate of students reading.  Some still search for answers online or randomly highlight, but we know they're not putting in the time when we grade their annotations.  It usually only takes one or two low grades on the annotations before they realize they're going to have to read.  It also helps that our class focuses less on the plot points of the text and more on the langugae aspects of the text.  Sure, some of these devices can be googled or posted here as questions, but rarely can they find all the devices for all the chapters (with explanations in their own high school vocabularies) online.

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y2kfain | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Adjunct Educator

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There are a number of wonderful strategies you can use to motivate students to read. One technique is to get students interested in the characters and theme of the story prior to reading. For example, if the lesson of the story involves "the betrayal of a valued friendship" have your students evaluate their own friendships. You can have a prompt or journal question that asks a question about friendship and/or betrayal. Then ask several students to read or discuss their journal. The teacher should respond by connecting their students' personal experiences to the lessons learned by the characters. Next, provide a brief summary to build interest in the story. You now have your students’ attention because you have built a connection between the character and the reader. Furthermore, the picture on the cover can build a connection between the main character and the reader. Students can make a prediction on the story based on the book cover or the back cover description. Having students engage in journaling, discussions, and prediction making about the characters and/or themes will provide suspense and eager readers.

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lsumner | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

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I have learned that the best way to get students to read is to first break down the story. I share suspenseful parts of the story to capture my students' attention. Then, I share highlights of certain passages. By this point, the students are better prepared to actually, word-for-word, read. The next approach is to play a CD with the entire story so that the students can read along. I offer Class Participation points for those who are actually reading. In works like The Iliad, this is a good way to get the students familiar with the complex text. Finally, after reading, I give points for those who break down the complex text (specific passages) and rewrite it modern-day English. This helps my ESL students. In fact, I allow them to break down the text in their native language. Students will retain most of the story this way.

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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My daughter's English teachers lets student read in groups. They have to complete activities that reflect what they have read, put together and PowerPoint and then present the book to the class. They are responsible to coming up with discussion questions and discussing them in front of the class as well. In this way, even if everyone doesn't read the entire book, they generally complete some of the reading. There is pressure to may sure that everyone contributes something: the rest of the group doesn't want to carry anyone. The rest of the class hears about a book they may want to read, and the activity becomes student-centered rather than teacher-centered. Giving students a choice of the book and who they want to work with is more appealing to the kids than reading on their own, and they also get to work with these students they have chosen, whereby they might not otherwise have the chance to interact with their peers as much.

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efguth | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Adjunct Educator

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I agree that this is a major challenge. I've had various levels of success with these strategies. I try to find "high interest level" books for my students. I've had great success with "The Hunger Games" and "Tears of a Tiger." I try to give students questions where they have to make evaluations or explain the motivations of the characters. It also helps sometimes if the work you are teaching has a movie. I always explain that the work we are reading is the main focus, but that a movie can support the students' reading and act as a motivator. But the teacher has to be careful to include questions on tests or quizzes that cannot be answered solely by viewing the movie. For example, in To Kill a Mockingbird the movie does not even show the old woman who wants to break her addiction to morphine before she dies, yet she is important is the book for Atticus as "the bravest person I've ever known"

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literaturenerd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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I received the same response from many of my juniors and seniors as post #1 (haven't read anything since middle school).  This is very upsetting given that this is basically saying they have failed to complete any reading assignments for a long time.  I actually had many students admit to me that this was the first year they have opened a novel in years.  I had them read Speak, Monster, Catcher in the Rye, and Of Mice and Men. I guess it simply depends on what you are planning on having them read.  Too many of them cannot relate to the novels we would like to have them read. What I have found is finding novels that teach the same concepts as the classics is much more negotiable for the students.  So, my advice is to try and find current novels that they can relate to and that will spark their interest.

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ladyvols1 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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I teach students with Specific Learning disabilities in Reading.  My students read and they listen to novels.  The audio book is an excellent way to introduce non-readers to the classics and by telling them to listen to the story as well as follow along in their books works well.  All of my Special needs freshmen passed their standardized testing this year and that is partly because I am not hung up on how they "read."  Another way to get high school students to read is supply reading materials they will enjoy.  My classroom is full of novels about vampires, werewolves, witches and wizards.  I read them first and if I find it acceptable (no porn or sexually explicit material) I put them in my classroom. I have also found magazine about cars, hunting, and guns are good starting points to jump from to books.  Ellen Hopkins is a good example of an author that teens love.  My students love the whole series.

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engtchr5 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Associate Educator

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The read-aloud idea was especially good, and I have developed a slight modification to it: Using an audio recording of the literature in question, pause at critical moments in the story, poem, article, etc. Then ask students questions that cannot be answered strictly by listening: "What other word could be a synonym for (some word from the passage just read aloud)?" for instance. The student is then encouraged to go back, look more closely at the word in question, and analyze. This forces students to both visually and auditorially process the text instead of relying strictly upon "lit by ear."  

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Noelle Thompson | High School Teacher | eNotes Employee

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Sadly, I have found that the only thing that works is giving a very easy quiz every single day they have a reading assignment due.  Am I sure not to make the quizzes passable if the kid only read the summary?  *sigh*  No.  I just don't have that kind of time.  I think the time I was hit hardest with reality was when one of my regular students came up to me before class and said, "I really read every word of The Scarlet Letter, Miss.  I just have NO idea what it said.  I can't read that well."  Ah, we learn SO much in our first years of teaching.

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childele | Elementary School Teacher | (Level 2) Adjunct Educator

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I love Clairewait's ideas about read-aloud, paired reading and reciprocal reading. Those strategies are very successful in primary and middle childhood classes as well. It may help if you reflect on the types of questions you ask.  Higher order questions that bring some element of relevance to students are more successful in the encouragement of outside reading assignments.

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ask996 | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Senior Educator

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One strategy that I use is called "Stump the Teacher/Stump the Student." This requires that both teacher and students read a section of a selection in a specified amount of time. At the end of the time, the teacher closes his or her book, and for another specified amount of time the students ask context oriented questions over the reading material. The teacher can answer or allow the students to occasionally "stump" her. Students will read so that they can "stump" the teacher. Students who finished the reading will have questions, but those students who have not finished reading will continue to scan the material in order to "stump" the teacher. The process is then reversed, and the students close their books while the teacher asks them questions. This allows the teacher to control the flow and understanding, but it also models higher order thinking, as the teacher's questions should be more in depth than those of the students.

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wannam | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

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I'm definitely a fan of "trick questions." I try to put several questions on each test or quiz that will show me if a student read the material or simply glanced over the spark notes. If there is a movie, I will also include a question for that; for instance, on a Romeo and Juliet quiz you might ask the student to describe Juliet's final moments. A student who has read the book will likely talk about her despair. A student who read the cliff notes will likely tell you that the friar was the last one to see her. A student who watched the movie will talk about the touching scene between Romeo and Juliet as Romeo dies in her arms. Students learn quickly that all the answers aren't available online. The ones who really want to learn and do well will read. The ones who are satisfied with C's won't, but at least they will be forced to read excerpts of the text. You might also try offering students a chance to select their own reading materials. My 11th graders had to read a classic of my choice. If they all participated and worked hard, I would let them select a novel they wanted to read and present to the class. You might also try reading aloud during class, letting students read the e-text version on a laptop or e-reader, or selecting excerpts from modern works to augment the classics. Good luck with your students. I know how frustrating it can be to try to get the kids to put down Facebook and pick up a novel.
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clairewait | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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In light of the ease the Internet has provided for staying "caught up" without actually reading, I've changed my entire classroom approach to teaching literature.

There is very little homework in my class and never reading homework.  I've accepted the fact that most high school students are simply too busy to read, and those who aren't are reading something on their own anyway.

I read all novels with my class in class.  I do a lot of reading aloud and having them follow along.  My principal originally got on me for this but it has been proven to increase comprehension.  It also allows me to model "reading and thinking aloud."  It also allows me to stop and ask questions, or for students to stop me and ask questions.  I have had an extremely positive response in all classes of all ages to this approach.

I also do a lot of paired reading where students sit together to read aloud to each other.  I never go down the line and have students read aloud to the entire class.  It is painful for everyone.  But for the most part, when they are allowed to pick their partners, most of my studens will pair-up with a friend (someone with whom they feel comfortable) and will actually read.

I also do reciprocal reading.  If you are unfamiliar with this technique, it requires very specific written assignments (created in advance by you) where students work in groups of 3 or 4 to read together to "find" answers and discuss the story as they read together.

Finally, and by far my most impactful practice in my classroom, is that I provide 45 minutes every Friday for required silent reading.  I make students choose a book and tell me what it is so they aren't constantly switching novels and only getting through the first 5 pages.  Every 6 weeks we have "book project presentations" or "book talks" in which students bring food and drinks, sit in circles, and talk about what they are reading.  THEY LOVE IT.  It took some time to develop this, but after a year or so, I was able to recommend so many books because of what I knew many students enjoyed.

All of these take away from the amount of material you can cover in a semester.  However, I'm over quantity and am pushing quality lessons and quality learning.

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amy-lepore | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Reading quizzes help in my class, and I take pains to ask questions that are not "right there" in the text answers, but where the student must read between the lines to answer correctly.  I also make sure that my tests and assessments are not the generalized "Cliff's Notes" questions.

In addition, my classes are largely based on Socratic seminars.  I give a short quiz before, and if the student doesn't pass (proving he/she's read), he doesn't participate--automatic "0" for the seminar.  Those who do pass, have to prepare for their particular jobs of discussion director, connector, wordsmith, summarizer, character educator, illustrator, etc.  They ask the tough questions and get down to the nitty-gritty of the piece, and I sit back and take notes on their depth, participation, and question quality.  If necessary, I interrupt to ask a question which hasn't been asked, but I try to allow them to be the teachers of each other.  It works great, and students do eventually get into it as their peers chide them for not responding or speaking.


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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Getting them to actually read? Woah. Is that what we are supposed to be doing? I thought we were meant to just point them in the direction of sparknotes to help them avoid the unpleasant necessity of actually having to look at a book. No, seriously, I find the same frustrations. I try to combat such approaches by setting tests on assigned chapters and deliberately including reference to quotations or close analysis of various segments that will necessitate them having to have actually read the chapters themselves. It doesn't always work, but there you go.

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