Maybe Reading ISN’T Fun

A friend of mine who teaches in a high poverty school dropped me a really discouraging email today. 

She told me that a training specialist assigned to her school had dropped in to one of their faculty’s vertical articulation meetings to offer feedback on the school’s attempts to integrate annotation into their reading instruction. 

Her message was less than inspirational, though.  Here’s the most disturbing quote:

"I tell kids this is not fun…This is work, and most of the reading you’ll do in life will not be for fun."

My first reaction was to load up the digital bazooka and blaze this woman

Not only can annotating text be fun when teachers decide to tap into the social nature of today’s students and integrate  shared annotation tools like Diigo into their work—something I’ve written extensively about before—but what kind of failed thinking leads any teacher to tell kids that “most of the reading you’ll do in life will not be for fun.”

Then, I just plain felt bad for the woman. 

As a guy who is literally consumed by reading—I probably finish 60 books a year and damn near all of them are fun even when they are tied to my profession—I want everyone to feel the same rush that comes from getting lost in a new title for a few hours. 

More importantly, I want every student to know a teacher who loves reading more than most anything.  That modeling matters.

But then I started to think that maybe—just maybe—this woman might be right.  Maybe reading—especially in high-poverty schools—ISN’T fun.

I mean, here’s just a FEW reasons why reading isn’t fun—for teachers or for students—anymore:

Reading is used as a school-quality indicator in almost every building on earth

That means the stakes are high and the pressure is on reading teachers—and their principals, and their staff developers, and their superintendents—all the time.

Holy heck:  In California, they’ve gotten to the point where newspapers publish teacher ratings based on reading and math scores—a move that may have led one educator to end his life.

No wonder teachers have a hard time spreading the word that reading is fun.  When public humiliation is the consequence for poor test scores, it’s hard to see reading as anything other than a chore.

And more importantly, when public humiliation is the consequence for poor reading scores, it’s hard to inspire a true love of reading in your students.  That professional resentment has got to have an impact on the message our teachers are sending our kids about reading, don’t you think?

Reading is used as a promotion gateway in almost every building on earth

That means the stakes are equally high for every student every time that they step into a reading classroom.  The pressure in many places is so great that struggling students see elective classes and recess periods replaced with reading remediation sessions until their eyes bleed.

Worse yet, struggling students are often exposed to drill-and-kill, uber-scripted reading lessons that no one could ever enjoy—and if they attend the neediest schools, they are far more likely to have under-qualified teachers delivering those lessons.

Are we having fun yet?

Kids don’t have the background knowledge necessary to succeed in content area reading classes.

One of the points that has sat in the back of my mind ever since spending three days studying Readicide with author and reading expert Kelly Gallagher is that every time we cut minutes for science and social studies instruction from the school day—a common occurrence in Accountability Nation—we kill a reader.

Here’s why:  As students get older, nonfiction reading plays an increasingly important role in their lives.  Having been raised in schools that cut nonfiction classes from the curriculum, however, our kids have no background knowledge to draw from when they’re trying to tackle content-heavy text.

That DOES make reading in science and social studies classes a complete chore for kids. 

And every time that students struggle to understand the content-heavy text that they’re asked to work through in classes where they have no background experience to draw from, they’re turned off from nonfiction reading.

It’s one of those vicious-cycle-thingys.

We’ve spent the better part of a decade bribing kids to read.

I’m sure that someone, somewhere meant well when they started reading reward programs like Accelerated Reader and Book It.  After all, what could be better than motivating kids to read?  And what better motivator than earning points to spend towards prizes or pizza!

Every kid loves prizes and pizza, right?

Sure they do.  But—as I explained in a recent Radical post—as soon as you start to incentivize any kind of behavior, you’re screwed.

See, once you start incentivizing behaviors, your intended targets—young readers, in this case—shift from working on social norms to working on market norms.

Translation:  Students go from reading for fun to reading for stuff—and if they’re not sufficiently motivated by the stuff you’ve got to give, they stop reading completely.

Sound familiar?


Does any of this make sense? 

Is it possible that schools—working with the best of intentions in a high stakes world where paranoia over struggling readers has reached a fever pitch—have inadvertently ruined reading for a generation?

What other factors make reading no fun in your buildings and in the lives of your students? 

More importantly, what can we do—if anything—to save it?

14 thoughts on “Maybe Reading ISN’T Fun

  1. Chris Picha

    Dear Rob,
    You make many good points that in my experience as a special education teacher, have gereralized to other subject areas. While I undersand your logic and aversion to providing artificial incetives for student reading, I think the problem lies more with how artificial incetives are faded when natural incentives begin to present. Once the student is effectively hooked by discovering the joy of reading a book,essay, short story or poem, it is up to the skilled intructor to slowly remove the arificial incentive while fanning the student’s flames of genuine interest and inspiration.

  2. Jessica Piper

    Dear Bill,
    I have blogged on this very same subject soooo many times. I work in a school with a free/reduced population of 70%…generational poverty. Reading is not fun UNTIL a teacher makes it fun. I do not give any incentives, no prizes, no trips, no erasers, nothing. My kids read like crazy…my 67 kids have read 40 books in a week’s time!
    I do let them read what they want to read (with the exception of Wimpy Kid! We are in 8th grade!), and there is no excuse for not reading. The second they finish a book, I have several piled up on their desk for the next adventure.
    READING IS FUN…when you make it. High Poverty is no excuse to give up and focus solely on tests. How about we make them life-long readers and learners.

  3. Bill Ferriter

    Matt wrote:
    Schools are then expected to require students to read material to
    provide the content for various subjects, like social studies and
    science. If the content that is presented in reading and content
    classes is fun so much the better, but should that not be a secondary
    First, Matt, good to see you again! Your comments always stretch my thinking, thats for sure.
    Second, I think you and I agree on an awful lot here. I definitely dont want anyone to interpret my reading should be fun message as lets jam our kids heads with fluff just so they can feel good about what theyre doing in school. The skills that go along with mastering reading in the content areas have to be learned and sometimes that takes a level of effort that may challenge kids.
    But I definitely think that the ol pendulum has shifted too far in this case. Theres a really negative vibe around reading in our schools right now because the pressure to perform—for teachers and students—on end of grade reading exams is intense. That pressure means that reading is never fun. Student choice and interest doesnt play a role in the instructional decisions of teachers. Instead, all that matters is does an activity directly connect to mastery of the skills measured by the multiple choice exams given every spring.
    Thats unhealthy because its extreme. Again, we need to find balance in our attempts to hold students and schools accountable and our willingness to let kids grow and experiment and invent as individuals. Right now, that balance doesnt exist—particularly in high needs schools and for students who have traditionally struggled to produce results on reading exams.
    Does that make sense?

  4. Matt Johnston

    Long time, no comments to you.
    Are we working from a false assumption that this training specialist simply called onto the carpet.
    Is it the mission of schools to is “make reading fun?” Is that truly a legitimate goal? If it is a goal, is it a goal that schools should be attempting to fulfill?
    Schools are, by acclamation, responsible for teaching children the mechanics, methods and purposes for reading. Schools are then expected to require students to read material to provide the content for various subjects, like social studies and science. If the content that is presented in reading and “content” classes is “fun” so much the better, but should that not be a secondary goal.
    The fact remains that we all read everyday as adults and much of that is not “fun” but related to work. We may enjoy our work and reading is a part of that work. For kids, school is their “work” and they need to understand that they cannot succeed without engaging in that task of “reading.” I have long advocated that so-called “content” teachers should be our reading teachers as well and it is those kinds of teachers who can unlock non-fiction reading as fun by knowing their subject and knowing what kind of books are available for students to read on a subject.
    For example, my eldest daughter got enthralled with ancient Egypt, the pharaohs, etc. But her social studies teacher was unable to name a single book, outside the text book, where my daughter could read more. Fortunately, we have a good public library with librarians with the kinds of skill and resources to answer the question.
    But the problem is that there might be many students who come across a subject in school that fascinates them, but the teachers lack either the knowledge or the resources to supplement classroom “work” reading with extra-curricular “fun” reading.
    If the goal is to teach that reading CAN BE fun, that is fine. But given that in the adult world, much information is still gathered by reading, we need to make sure that kids can do the reading and the worry about making reading fun should be secondary at best.

  5. Bill Ferriter

    What I found so revealing in your comment describing your efforts to integrate nonfiction reading into your students’ lives—-great stuff, by the way…I’m checking out Good Reads today—–was the fact that you felt you had to hide it because it didn’t align with one of your required objectives.
    That’s a systems-level fail if I’ve ever seen one.
    When teachers get to the point where they’re either afraid to integrate reading into the content area classroom or where they feel like they don’t have the time because of the crush of other content they’re supposed to cover, SOMEONE official has to change SOMETHING….and quick-like to boot!
    So frustrating…but I know where you’re coming from. I’ve been there too many times to count.
    Rock on,

  6. Bill Ferriter

    JB wrote:
    Again, “more time” seems to be the biggest problem. I would love to help these kids learn to read and frequently do, but the ticking clock with a test at the end of each quarter and a state-sponsered test at the end of the year looms over everything I do.
    Good points, JB. Here are a few thoughts:
    1. We have to start chopping objectives from science and social studies curricula even if we DON’T want teachers in those classes to integrate reading. I know that from first-hand experience. I’m teaching science this year for the fifth time and have spent 12 years teaching integrated LA/SS classes.
    So I know the trivial pursuit instruction you’re speaking about. Heck, our state just revised our sixth grade SS curriculum to cover everything from the beginning of prerecorded time to 1400.
    How, exactly, are we supposed to teach over 14 centuries in 180, 50 minute class periods.
    It’s a joke.
    2. I do think, though, that once we narrow SS and SCI curricula, that nonfiction reading objectives should be assigned to SS and SCI teachers. I also think principals—especially in middle schools—need to start hiring candidates for content positions who have a fundamental understanding of reading instruction.
    By doing so, not only can we better justify the time our students spend in content area classes to underinformed policymakers, but we can start to see more reading instruction delivered in the kinds of nonfiction contexts that are completely missing today.
    Any of this make sense?

  7. Marsha Ratzel

    Bill, I’ve been lucky to stumble upon something this year that has changed many kids attitudes towards reading. I’m one of those mean SS and Sci teachers that, to solve the lack of background, started assigning outside reading. They pick 1 book per month to read on any topic they’d like within the constraints of my curriculum. They write a book review and then we TALK about what they learned, we read for fun in class and give 30 second advertisements, etc etc etc. I allow them to keep track of what they’re reading on Goodreads…and chat with them (and they chat with each other) using the social networking aspect of GR.
    At first they only read what they had to read…now I’d say about half of them read all the time. Probably 4 or 5 books a month..they share titles, recommendations and slam the stinker books.
    All is not lost if we stand up and do it. I did it quietly without lots of fanfare or I knew I’d draw attention to the fact I wasn’t teaching exactly to standards. By that I mean I couldn’t quote the learning target of the day when everyone was reading a different book about a different topic….but I think I’ve gotten enough student and parent support to sway the people that worry about these things.
    My kids are falling love with non-fiction, science, social studies, and reading. Imagine I just spent more than $30 so they can get the latest books that aren’t in our libraries…good thing I got a few booksellers gift cards for Christmas.
    I know I’m preaching…but I just love this so much.

  8. C

    You ask if it is possible that we have inadvertently ruined reading for a generation. I answer: yes! It is not only possible, but highly plausible. Multiple choice questions may be the absolute worse thing to ever happen to education, particularly regarding reading. When kids focus on minute details, they are less able to focus on gaining big ideas, and more importantly, a love of reading and the enjoyment that can come from just reading something for the sake of reading it. I believe we need to focus more on creating a culture of literacy, rather than high-stakes reading tests.
    And yes, if a teacher hates reading, so too will the students.

  9. Naomi Epstein

    You wrote:
    “our kids have no background knowledge to draw from when they’re trying to tackle content-heavy text”.
    Deaf students exemplify this VERY clearly. Many of them suffer from a severe deficit in general knowledge and HATE READING!

  10. JB

    The problem is that those same SS and Sci teachers are just as much a victim of high-stakes testing and having to cram “Trivial Pursuit-style” facts into the kids’ heads. Frequently we are admonished to lower the reading level of our content and focus on the “terms” of the test to “reach” our lower-achieving students.
    Again, “more time” seems to be the biggest problem. I would love to help these kids learn to read and frequently do, but the ticking clock with a test at the end of each quarter and a state-sponsered test at the end of the year looms over everything I do.

  11. Bill Ferriter

    Rob wrote:
    All good points….but….people can talk about how we shouldn’t remove ss and science. But when will someone post an ideal school day that is 6 hrs long?
    Good question, Rob, but my argument would be that if we hire social studies and science teachers that have a fundamental understanding of how to teach reading—particularly in elementary and middle schools—we could strengthen reading instruction without cutting minutes from content classes.
    That approach would make even more sense if we stopped seeing reading as a subject and started viewing it as a set of skills that are used to explore subjects.
    Then, you could cut reading classes completely, invest that time back into the content areas, and move your reading teachers into your content classrooms.
    I know that may seem like fringe thinking considering how we’ve always had reading as its own subject, but wouldn’t it work?

  12. gasstationwithoutpumps

    Only 60 books a year? I’ll have to keep a log this year, but I’m sure I’m reading at least double that, and I’m the slow reader in my family: my high school son reads at least twice as many books as me.

  13. Mark

    Tangent: a teacher I know once said, about math: “You’re not supposed to understand it.”
    You can’t share what you haven’t got — if you don’t understand or like a particular subject, you can’t teach students to like or understand it. Some may like/understand it despite that teacher, but not because of her.

  14. Rob

    All good points….but….people can talk about how we shouldn’t remove ss and science. But when will someone post an ideal school day that is 6 hrs long?

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