For students who don’t read widely and regularly, current high-stakes reading tests may lead to failure and frustration. Failing these tests often lands students in intensive remediation classes, where schools offer them endless practice in test-taking but few opportunities to engage in meaningful, self-directed reading. While we may ultimately teach students enough test-taking strategies to eke out a passing score and earn that high school diploma, we are missing a crucial opportunity to show our students that they, too, can be real readers.
I recently attended a workshop for high school teachers who, like me, teach students who have failed state-mandated English tests. Vocabulary is a huge weakness for these students, and my colleagues and I earnestly discussed ways of incorporating context clues, roots, and affixes into our instruction.
But let’s not forget self-selected reading, I suggested, as there are only so many words or strategies we can teach our students in the limited time we have. Of course the strategies are valuable, but real reading, which gives students much broader exposure to words than our selected texts and exercises ever can, should be a part of the equation.
The response: Some shrugs and rolls of the eyes. A few teachers were honest enough to give voice to their thoughts: These kids? They won’t read. Good luck.
Faced with kids who don’t or won’t read, we decide instead to teach strategies—many of them very good ones—but not to insist that these students also deserve rich reading experiences. We do this with the best of intentions: for students on the brink of dropping out, it seems a waste of precious instructional time to devote some of it to reading—and then to struggle to get students actually to read.
I know the frustrations: the hidden or not-so-hidden cell phone, the head down on the desk, the turning of pages without actually reading. I face these frustrations in my classroom in the alternative high school where I teach. Many of my students have completed all the required academic credits for graduation and are in my class simply because they have been unable to pass state tests in reading and writing.
Despite these challenges, I remind myself that my students need more meaningful reading experiences, not fewer. And so I still ask my students to read self-selected texts every day in my classroom. I know that by developing the habit of reading, my students will build their vocabularies, encounter a variety of sentence structures, and experience reading as a process of making meaning, not just the chore that comes before answering multiple choice questions.
And here are a few things that have happened: A student who has taken our state reading test five times already, and who never fails to come to class with headphones on and his phone at the ready, has read three complete novels in the first semester of school. After completing two novels from the always popular Bluford series, he moved on to a more challenging text, The Blind Side, and finished it within a few weeks.
Another student is so resistant to reading that he announced at the beginning of the year, “Ms. D, I don’t read books.” This student, however, has a deep interest in current events. After trying unsuccessfully to interest him in various biographies, I reminded myself that the goal is real reading; books aren’t the only option. With a daily newspaper in our classroom, he now willingly puts his phone away and buries himself in the day’s events.
These students still need plenty of support to become strategic readers, but I know that I haven’t denied them the significant experience enjoyed by their more academically successful peers—that of engaged, authentic reading.
If, like me, you’re not ready to give up on helping struggling or even resistant students become readers, here are a few suggestions:
1. Require only one thing: reading material that appeals.
My only requirement is that students like what they read. No expectations for length, superior authorship, lexile level, or having never read the book before. Students are often surprised when, at the beginning of the course, I announce that I want them to choose a short book, one that they can finish in just a few weeks of reading in my class. Graphic novel? Sure. Verse? Give it a try. Magazine or newspaper? We can start small and build stamina as we go.
Many of my students (and for many, this is their fourth or fifth year in high school) report that they have not read a book since middle school. My goal for these students is that they experience reading a text—any text at all—from start to finish, just because it holds their attention, and not because they will have to take a test on it.
2. Let them change their minds.
Students will start books that they don’t like. I give them permission to stop. As a reader myself, that’s what I do. I don’t require students reach a certain goal or complete a project. Instead, I work with them, and, with the help of our incredibly well-read school media specialist, we find a book that works.
3. Read in class every day.
For kids who don’t read at all, even ten minutes a day helps to form a new habit. Short books with short chapters suit this purpose well, but if students want to read a longer text, they can read to the end of a paragraph or page when time is up. That way, students can carry a finished thought with them before the next day’s reading.
Offering opportunities for real reading matters because none of us would ever say, “My students don’t like to write, so I’m just not going to ask them do to it anymore.” Or, “It’s so frustrating to get my students to use punctuation; I just won’t bother teaching it.” However, we get so worried about tests that it seems reasonable to us to say, “My students aren’t readers, so I’m not going to ask them to read.”
Fostering Authentic Reading
Let’s use every reading strategy at our disposal, scaffolding learning opportunities for our under-prepared students. But let’s not forget that we all became good readers by finding texts we wanted to read and reading them for our own purposes. We can’t lose sight of the most important thing that readers do: read with the expectation that they will learn or enjoy something. It’s a false choice to say we don’t have time to encourage real reading because we have to teach strategies for passing tests. We can and should do both.
While passing a standardized test is an important short-term goal for our students, fostering true literacy is the larger vision. Real reading gives resistant students the experience they need to become more accomplished readers with better odds for success on high stakes tests. More importantly, maybe, just maybe, once they pass that last standardized test, they will see themselves in a new way: not just as high school graduates, but as readers.