Centre County Teacher-Writers | Find the time to instill love of reading

February 19, 2014 

Editor’s note: Centre County Teacher-Writers is a group of teachers who gather to write about life in the classroom and the issues that concern them as educators. The group includes pre-K-12 teachers and teacher educators from the Centre Region who support each other as writers. Columns by members of this group run on the Views page on a Wednesday each month.

Full disclosure: I love to read.

It’s why I became an English teacher. My house and my classroom are full of shelves that are overflowing with books. Usually, I’m reading more than one book at a time.

In the past several years, I’ve begun to worry: Why don’t I see more students who seem to share this love?

In trying to figure this out, I’ve come to a realization about my students that many of you probably already know: Our children are busier than ever. They have jobs, clubs, lessons, chores, sports, homework, families and friends.

And they have school.

Many of my 120 10th-graders have several of the high-level, academically rigorous classes that State High has to offer in their current schedules. A large number of them don’t even have lunch (what does it say when many of our students don’t schedule time in their day for a 40-minute break to eat and relax?)

Students are scheduling courses for next year. Unsurprisingly, a large number have asked me to recommend them for Advanced Placement (the highest level of study) English for 11th grade.

According to our school website, students at the AP level “display a love of reading and writing and read a great deal on his/her own.” Given more free time, this would probably be true of many, if not most of my students this year.

But they don’t have free time and they’re not reading.

I’ve spoken to other teachers who, like me, surveyed their students at the beginning of the year. Our findings were consistent: The last time many high school students read a book, start to finish, was sometime in middle school. I suspect there are myriad factors. Lack of down time and the distraction of technology top the list.

In the past two years, literacy has been the focus of many K-12 discussions in the State College Area School District.

There is districtwide mandate to commit to improving the literacy of our young people that cuts across curriculum areas. Compulsory literacy classes have been added to the middle schools. A great deal of professional development time has been devoted to training all content area teachers strategies that would improve the reading instruction in their classrooms.

In the coming years, parents should be prepared to hear about their children’s Lexile numbers. Diagnostic testing in the primary grades is giving educators and parents insights into their children’s reading levels (ranging from 100 to 1600+), according to the Lexile framework.

It is the hope that this testing will allow students to be more effectively matched with books that challenge them, but not so much that they become frustrated and give up.

But, I would argue, literacy is also a natural outgrowth of reading for pleasure.

Although it’s important to teach students the skill of deciphering a complex text, that may not be the only — or even the most — important piece to the puzzle.

So this year, along with many of my colleagues at the high school, I have built regular free-reading days into my schedule and I’ve partnered with our school librarian to pair these days with a significantly increased book selection.

So far, this move has been a great success. I’ve seen a marked increase in organic discussions about books in my classroom. Most of my students have their books on hand at almost all times and many are now skilled in the practice of taking out their books to read when they’ve completed their other classwork.

In a recent keynote address at a conference of Pennsylvania English teachers, teacher and author Donalyn Miller quipped, “I always make sure my students have a book with them. They never know when they might have a reading emergency.”

Regular readers know how to find their reading emergencies: standing in lines, waiting to pick up our (ever busy) children, sitting at the doctor’s office. But our young people might not yet know how to see those moments.

While riding on buses, waiting for siblings to finish music lessons and going to appointments of their own, if they have something on hand to read, then they might do just that.

As educators and parents, we can work together to help our young people find the moments — at home and at school — that can develop a love of reading to last a lifetime.

Jennifer Rand teaches 10th grade English at State College Area High School. For more information about Centre County Teacher- Writers, contact Anne Elrod Whitney at awhitney@psu.edu.

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