Opinion
Reading & Literacy Commentary

Hooks for Reluctant Readers

By Patricia Ingram — November 26, 2003 6 min read
When it is evident that we as teachers are failing a group of students, new ideas and new approaches are called for.

What can we do about kids in high school who are still reading below grade level, sometimes way below? I propose two possible solutions that fit under the general headings of Get Them Reading and Get Them Writing. The vehicles for these adventurous goals are the recently booming genre of “graphic novels” and another category of fiction I call narrative poetry.

Adolescents in general spend less time in recreational reading than younger children. Adolescents experience the world in an extremely personal way and focus intensely on what is inside them—their thoughts and feelings, their nascent worldviews, their developing value systems, their evolving identities. With this in mind, I believe the most successful avenue to improved reading ability for adolescents is writing. Writing offers a way to express, to communicate these thoughts and feelings and experiences, a way to engage in the work of forming identity, a way to develop a voice and practice using it.

Research has shown the value of recognizing the interrelatedness of what we usually regard as separate cognitive activities—reading and writing. They may in fact be better understood as two aspects of the same activity. The two kinds of books I am interested in address both of these aspects. They are attractive to adolescents as reading matter in a number of ways, and they serve as accessible models and inspiration for the students’ own writing.

Narrative poetry is not a new term. I am using it here to identify a growing group of books, written in free verse, that are narrative in the sense that an entire book of poems follows a narrative line, telling a story by an accumulation of the different perspectives and insights of characters in the story. Each character is represented by one or more relatively short poems. Mel Glenn, an author of young-adult books, has written many of these works, including such titles as Jump Ball: A Basketball Season in Poems, Foreign Exchange: A Mystery in Poems, and Split Image. His books My Friend’s Got This Problem, Mr. Candler, and Back to Class are collaborations with the photographer Michael J. Bernstein, whose photographic portraits of high school students complement and extend the verse portraits.

Another young-adults writer, Karen Hesse, gives us Witness, which chronicles the relationships and changes that take place when a small town in Vermont faces the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1920s. Her Out of the Dust, a diary in free verse set in the Oklahoma dust bowl during the Great Depression, won the Newberry Award and was described by Booklist as a “powerful, compelling tale of a girl with enormous strength, courage, and love.” Likewise, Ann Turner’s Learning to Swim: A Memoir is a poignant novel in verse, told in the first person by a child who is molested by an older boy, a neighbor, while at her family’s summer house. Other authors of books for young people using this format include Sonya Sones, Sharon Creech, Cynthia Rylant, and Ron Koertge.

I recommend these books for several reasons. First, they are short. Each page of text is usually one poem and has a high proportion of white space to text. The number of pages is average or below average, and the entire book can usually be read in a few hours. Second, each line is short. Each line is a single thought or syntactic unit, which makes it easy to read. Third, the nature of poetry is intense, direct expression of thought and feeling, which is what adolescents are all about. And I use the word “direct” deliberately. Image, I believe, is a much more direct expression of feeling than non- imagistic text.

This strong connection to the visual is important not only to the visual learner, but to virtually all young people growing up today. For the same reasons, these books serve as workable models and inspiration for student work. Free verse is an accessible format, easy to begin using, similar in form to the stream of conscious thought, and not intimidating to the young writer. Once engaged and writing, sharing, and discussing with other young writers, the beginning writer can move toward other forms and formats, as well as toward a refinement of this one.

Reluctant readers at any age are a problem for teachers, but a student's graduating from high school without becoming a reader is a tragedy.

The second group of books falls under the publishing heading of graphic novels. What we know as comic books are part of this category and take up most of the space on any bookstore shelf reserved for graphic novels. But there are various other examples of the genre, perhaps the most astounding being Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, the Pulitzer Prize-winning story of the Holocaust, told in comic book style with mice and cats as the characters. These books share all the advantages of the narrative-poetry books—short, not too much text per page, imagery. And they have the strong additional advantage of being a distinct type of book that children and adolescents identify as their own.They are fun to read and fun to make.

No one can work with children without being aware of the explosion in the last decade of Japanese animation, or anime, and its twin, manga, often the same images, stories, and characters in print form. Manga makes up the majority of graphic novels published today, although there are many other examples, and the format is growing in range and diversity.

There are historical/biographical graphic novels, such as King by Ho Che Anderson, Last Day in Vietnam: A Memory by Will Eisner, and Fax From Sarajevo: A Story of Survival by Joe Kubert. There are graphic novels taken from great literature, such as The Last Knight: An Introduction to Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, as adapted by Will Eisner, and Give It Up! And Other Short Stories by Franz Kafka, illustrated by Peter Kuper. There are graphic novels in the field of science, such as The Cartoon Guide to Genetics by Larry Gonick and Mark Wheelis. And there are graphic novels that deal with social issues such as child abuse, as in The Tale of One Bad Rat by Bryan Talbot; teenage pregnancy, as in The Amazing “True” Story of a Teenage Single Mom by Katherine Arnoldi; and AIDS, as in the excellent Pedro and Me: Friendship, Loss, and What I Learned by Judd Winick.

Teachers, of course, disagree on the subject of using popular- culture media in the classroom. But as Timothy G. Morrison, Gregory Bryan, and George W. Chilcoat write in “Using Student-Generated Comic Books in the Classroom” (Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, May 2002), using popular culture can “diminish the disparity children perceive between their lives in and out of school.” They argue that students need “to become critical consumers of media messages” through exposure and discussion in the classroom, and they suggest the use of student-generated comic books as a tool for developing reading comprehension and research skills.

The British educator, artist, and author Paul Johnson, the director of the Book Art Project, says, “What is needed is a new kind of educator who embraces the two prime communications systems—writing and visual communication—in a pragmatic and down-to-earth way.” His books are lucid how-to manuals as well as passionate proposals for the development of literacy through integration of the visual imagery of a child’s own drawing with student-generated text.

Reluctant readers at any age are a difficult problem and a heartache for teachers, but a student’s actually graduating from high school without becoming a reader is a tragedy. Where it is evident that we as teachers are failing a group of students, new ideas and new approaches are called for. These children have something to say. We need to provide a venue for them. Engaging students in writing, using formats that work for them, will lead these hard-to-reach students to a greater enjoyment of and participation in reading.

I hope that these ideas will inspire further thought, action, and innovation in this difficult area.

Patricia Ingram is a librarian at Johnston High School in Austin, Texas.

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