How do we get young people reading more?
Why do so many teenagers turn off reading, particularly in the modern day?
They’re the million dollar questions that we, as English teachers, as Literacy coordinators, and as parents are continually grappling with.
What if reading’s fundamental draw -the individual, imaginative, private experience, was in fact a key reason why many students are essentially switched off it?
Teenagers are social animals – their existence depends on it. Their interests are usually ones that can be shared and reflected on afterwards with others: sport, bands/gigs, films, social media/youtube, gaming…
But with reading, it’s different – people rarely read the same book at the same time – it’s less likely to be a topic of conversation for keen readers I would guess, and even less likely to be an attractive draw for ‘reluctant readers’ (as we’ve termed our key battleground in our school recently)
I’ve had several experiences recently which have led me to the idea that the social experience (and an enforced one at that!) is the way to drive reading forward and ignite enough curiosity to read privately in the future.
- My promotion of Communal Reading at my school. I blogged about it here. No longer are students ‘playing the game’ chatting behind book covers in tutor time. Over the last couple of years all students have read the openings of up to 10 pre-selected books – together as a vertical tutor group, discussed and enjoyed them together.
- My Year 7 English group’s communal reaction this year to ‘The Lost’ by Alex Shearer, and the big twist. I’ve read it for a few years on and off to groups, but this year’s response was insane. Students were off their chairs, heads in hands, hands over mouths, screaming they didn’t want to go to break, ‘cool kids’ begging to ‘just read’, chatting about it at break proudly in front of mates, rebelliously stealing a copy (two students!) to read and finish at home over the weekend…It redefined the term ‘engagement’! One student who I taught 6 years ago who still gets in contact now and again, remembers the day her class erupted together as they read that twist.
- My Year 10 top set’s recent parents evening. Many parents revealed to me something I had suspected -that their sons/daughters don’t read anywhere near as much as they used to. I went down my normal line – why not try this? What are their interests? All the normal nonsense that invariably has no effect. One parent suggested that I make it compulsory. Genius! So I did just that – chose 3 books that I said the class had to have purchased one of and read by the end of the month. Yes, they’re a top set, but many have come in enthusiastically regaling me and each other with moments from the books, and THE BUZZ IS BACK!
Things we could do then:
- Choose a book and read aloud together in tutor times
- Set a book you’ve chosen (or maybe chosen as a class) to read as homework
- Set up reading groups
- Make sure every year group has a class novel in the English curriculum
And don’t just try and find a book that matches their interests. It’s patronising and one that has hardly ever yielded success for me. My Yr 7 winner was about a child kidnapper – not ever likely to be an interest of kids! We have the expertise to know which books pull at children’s heart strings most of the time!
How much more powerful to have that warm reading experience together (at least a bit more anyway!)? Think of those moments reading with parents when you were young, in primary school, maybe even reflecting as an adult in a book group?
Don’t get me wrong – I fully appreciate the personal, escapist experience of reading a book, but many don’t. They don’t ‘get it’…yet. There’s got to be a first step – and for me, that’s finding ways in schools for more enforced reading of the same book to nurture that social aspect often lacking from the pursuit.
Thanks for reading.