Teaching a Love of Reading

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“It looks as though school, no matter the age or nation, has had only one role. And that’s to teach the mastery of technique and critical commentary and to cut off spontaneous contract with books by discouraging the pleasure of reading. It’s written in stone in every land: pleasure has no business in school, and knowledge gained must be the fruit of deliberate suffering.” (Pennac 1999 p. 91)

I would like to propose that we stop telling our students what to read.

If you have any students like I’ve had in the past, at least half of them won’t read something because you tell them to anyway, so why waste your breath?

Ask yourself instead, “Why do we want students to read?

You could go through a number of answers, and I think it’d be great if you left some in the comments of this post. But I think the reason that holds the most weight is this: to encourage them to become life-long readers and life-long learners. And there is no better way to mess it up than choosing for them what they should read.

I’m really big into book clubs. To me it’s an authentic environment that prepares students for reading in the adult world. The teacher chooses five to seven books on the same topic, like coming of age, culture, religion, and then lets students choose which book they read. The students reading the same book meet once a week in small groups to discuss what they’ve read. I wanted to take these great reading units typically only seen in the advanced placement/honors classroom and bring it to the mainstream and remedial classes.

It doesn’t work in the mainstream classroom. I tried it as a student teacher, and while some groups really got into it, plenty did not. They didn’t like the district required reading either. Almost everyone hated The Pearl, and while the ones that read Night thought it was important to read it, the ones that didn’t read it cared about the Holocaust, but not about the book.

If we want students to become life-long readers, we can’t force it on them. At the risk of comparing students to members of the equine family, you can lead a horse to water . . .

In Better Than Life, Daniel Pennac argues that we need to read aloud to our students. For him, it is the key ingredient that will bring back the joy of reading – focusing on the story, instead of the book, or the words, or whether or not the student can critically analyze from the historical-cultural standpoint. He believes that students will become so enthralled with the story, they’ll go find the book so they can read the end before you do.

I’m skeptical. I was read to in English class too, but I never ran out to find the book so I could read ahead. There was one critical difference, however. I was always tested on the book.

We have to satisfy one condition for this reconciliation to take place: we must ask for nothing in return. Absolutely nothing. Erect no wall of prior knowledge around books. Ask not a single question. Do not assign the smallest scrap of homework. Do not add a single word to the pages that have been read. No value judgements, no vocabulary explainations, no textual analysis, no biographical notes. It is strictly forbidden to talk about the book.

Reading is a gift.

Read, and wait.

Curiosity can’t be forced. It must be awakened.

Read, and trust the eyes that open slowly, the faces that light up, the questions that will begin to form and give way to other questions.

If the pedagogue in us has a hard time not “presenting the work in it’s total context,” persuade that little voice that the only context that counts, right now, is this moment in this classroom.

The pathways to knowledge do not end in this classroom; they should start from it.

For the time being, I am reading novels to an audience that thinks it doesn’t like reading. Nothing important can be taught until I’ve defeated that illusion and completed my work as a go-between.

Once these teenagers are reconciled with books, they’ll gladly take the road that leads from the novel to the author, from the author to his or her era, from the story they’ve read to the many meanings it contains.

Be prepared. (Pennac 1999 p. 149-50)

Pennac believes that the students will come to the books from the syllabus on their own. I don’t know if I’m as convinced they will, but I am also not convinced that it matters too much.

If students are reading something, we are in a much better position than if they were reading nothing. Unless they’re going to go on to become English majors, what they’ve read specifically does not matter too much. No avid reader will read bad literature forever.

Pennac gives us a Reader’s Bill of Rights – rights that life-long readers have, but our students often are restricted.

  1. The right to not read.
  2. The right to skip pages.
  3. The right to not finish a book.
  4. The right to reread.
  5. The right to read anything.
  6. The right to escapism.
  7. The right to read anywhere.
  8. The right to browse.
  9. The right to read out loud.
  10. The right not to defend your tastes.

Some would be easy to enact in the traditional classroom. Some would be difficult.

Supposing you accept my belief that these should be posted in every classroom throughout the land, how do we do it?

Pennac, D., & Homel, D. (1999). Better Than Life York: Stenhouse Publishers.


Ben Bleckley is a teacher and former Peace Corps volunteer.

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One Response to “Teaching a Love of Reading”
  1. Ron Amundson says:

    The educational system as we know it would need to be completely upended, and maybe thats not such a bad thing. Ie, the readers bill of rights pretty much mandates individualized instruction rather than one size fits all. It also throws teacher accountability/compensation via student performance out the window.

    The end goal likely shared by most is to develop students passion for reading and ideally literature. Certainly forced reading has the potential to kill off any and all passion a student once had. It did for me, and I remember writing a uni paper on such way back when… it didnt fly too well LOL! Otoh, I’m sure in the back of my professor’s mind, she had to agree with the logic of my argument, at least to a point anyhow.

    Yet, just as she disagreed with my premise, I’m not sure I fully buy into the readers bill of rights either. There are many times when we just need to plow into things, even if dry, poorly written, or exceedingly boring. The thing is, such should not be the primary focus, and I’m afraid contemporary education has made it so, and I think there in lies the biggest problem.

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