Blog #5: Can we make them read?

On September 10, 2007, Tim Fredrick writes in his blog (http://timfredrick.typepad.com/timfredrick/):

I received an e-mail from Julie, a reader of this blog, and she agreed to let me post her letter and my response:

Tim,

I agree with your "we've beaten reading" down philosophy and have taken the fun out of it. I'm just starting out in the world of teaching English and have a special ed background as well. One of the things I'm having my students do is pick out a book to read and then, they have to do a book report on it. The reason I'm asking them to do the report is because I don't have enough time to read 1,000 books to see which ones kids in 9th and 10th grade actually like. I'm doing live research by having them read these books and rate them so that I will know what books I should recommend based on student picks.   How can we assess reading if we don't use a "book report" form? I had to do them when I was young and although I hated them, too, they at least forced me to read those books. Sure, a lot of them I didn't even finish, but I always attempted to read the books. I discovered a lot of good books that way and equally bad ones. I've iterated and reiterated to my students and will do so again Tuesday, when we go to the library, that if they don't pick out books that they're genuinely interested in reading, their success rate will also be diminished.   I'd like to hear your opinion on this topic and how to assess reading without a "book report."

Thanks!
Julie

I wanted to post her e-mail because I think it very clearly articulated a valid and major concern of ELA teachers.  My response:

Julie,

Thanks for your e-mail.

You can assess if the students have been reading by occasionally having them read in class silently for 15 minutes.  Keep a log of what they are reading and what page they are one every time they read in class.  It takes a minute or so to go around the room and write down page numbers on a chart.  You will be able to tell who has the same book over and over again and makes progress on the page numbers.  In addition, talk to the kids about their books on a regular basis.  If the kid can't be specific about the book or his/her opinion, he's not reading.  This should not be punitive and if the kid isn't reading just subtly let him know you notice and move on.  Having "the talk" with him about it will only make it worse.  It becomes a way to rebel against you and then you are dealing with strong, strong forces.

As I tell teachers, there's no way to MAKE a kid read a book. There are only ways to make the act of reading something that they want to do.  Have patience, it doesn't happen right away.

Let me give an example ... I had a student who approached me at the beginning of the year, put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Tim, I need to tell you this: I don't read." I said, "But ..." He said, "No, Tim, you don't understand.  I ... don't ... read."  Knowing that I could not make him read no matter how many reports I assigned, I let it go.  Every once in a while I might put a book on his desk and say, "I know you don't read and won't be interested in this, but I wanted to try."  I did it with books that I saw his friends reading or books that had really great covers.  Eventually, after a LOT of doing this, he picked up the book. A week later, he left the book in the classroom when he left to go to lunch and someone in the next class picked it up.  He had lost the book.  He came to me the next day very upset that the book was missing (and, of course, blamed me!).

It happens slowly - but it can't be forced.  Sometimes the trick is finding the right book.  Don't look at it as trying to MAKE them read.  Try to MAKE reading something desirable.  You can't go home with them and force their little hands to pick up the book and their little eyes to read the words.  You simply can't.  You can only create conditions in which they will want to pick up the book and read.

Hope that helps.  Keep me informed!

Tim

She replied, asking how to handle being asked by an administrator for proof of assessment.  My response:

Your chart on reading progress would provide accountability.  If you have those conversations individually and take notes in a notebook, this provides accountability.  If you don't feel that this will be satisfactory to the administration, have the kids write for 10 minutes every time they read in class and hand it in.  Ten minutes is not a lot of time and won't feel like a book report.  The assignment could be to have them write you a letter saying whether or not they would recommend the book at this point and why.  This would probably wind up being more writing than a book report, anyway, but it is very low stakes and because you are the audience will seem more informal and personal.  The words 'book report' have certain meanings and feelings.  If you do keep it an end of book assignment, call it something else!!  :)

I know this will be an unpopular idea, but book reports need to go!  For students who struggle with reading, it is just another reason not to read when we should be giving them more reasons to read.  I can tell you from experience, that the methods of assessment I suggest (the progress chart and individual conferences) provide you will much more information to assess a student than any book report (which many students just copy from the back of the book, each other, or the Internet!)

My Response:

            As a future high school English teacher, I was very interested in the ideas and concerns presented by both Tim and his reader, Julie. Their correspondence reminded me of a thought I had just the other day when a friend and I were talking about a novel I had read in high school for a book report. At the end of the conversation, I unthinkingly mentioned "I hated doing book reports!" As I said it, I realized... pretty soon I was going to be the teacher assigning the book reports that all students hate!  I always loved reading, but I hated doing reports. Rather than writing a three page summary of what I had read  and preparing a two minute speech with a visual aid, I would have rather just started another book! On the other hand, I know students who hated reading but loved doing these reports, because it was easy to get points without reading anything but a Sparknotes.com summary. I'm not sure about "renaming" book reports, though, because I've heard them called everywhere from "Book Beat" to "Reading Reviews" and students always seem to know that they're still book reports. It was very coincidental that I came about this blog entry since I have been thinking about the issue of book reports for the past few days.

            I really like the idea of having students read in class for fifteen minutes and record what they are reading, how far along they are, etc. We always had programs in high school that mandated reading for fifteen minutes a week in your first period class, but teachers would never know the difference if you brought the same book every week and never read a word of it. I think if you have students read silently without any other distractions, and, like you suggested, gently recommend books you think "non-readers" might like, you just might get through to some students who think reading isn't their thing. I will certainly use this advice in my future as an English teacher and I'm lucky to have stumbled onto this entry!

Laura Blaskey

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