It is a commonplace for teachers and parents to bemoan the fact that students will avoid reading anything they don’t absolutely have to. Yet, there is a wealth of evidence that reading outside the school curriculum leads to better examination results in everything from languages to maths.
It does not seem to matter what students read – much to the dismay of those of us who value Literature with a capital L – or whether we read from the printed page or a screen. Rather it is the quantity of reading that improves our mastery of first and second languages both in understanding language and in producing it in writing and even speaking (Krashen: 2006).
Then, there is evidence that reading fiction makes our students more tolerant human beings with greater respect for those who are different from them, whether in gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religious belief or in the opinions they hold (Vazzali, et al.: 2014). And, of course, there is the simple pleasure of reading. We can escape from mundane reality and venture into worlds where adventure abounds, get to know intriguing new characters from far off places and times, involve ourselves in their concerns, share their thoughts and laugh and cry with them. In short, we can make new friends who will never desert us in times of loneliness and sadness.
So, why do teenagers stubbornly adhere to the view that reading is boring, something foisted on them by their teachers? Could it have something to do with the way that we, as teachers, approach reading in L2 classrooms? Krashen believes that it has. He argues that we too often treat reading texts as fodder for rehearsing new grammatical structures or for introducing tricky vocabulary and idioms that students then have to define or replicate in their own sentences. In short, reading is yet another means by which we can assess students, whether through a comprehension quiz or an assignment to be completed at home. This, for most of us, takes all the joy out of reading for meaning, for excitement, for relaxation.
Krashen also tries to persuade us that the choice of what students read should be their own, as only they know what they like. It does not matter if the content focuses on sport, romance, science fiction and fantasy or action. More controversially, perhaps, he and the gurus of extensive reading, Bamford and Day (1998), advise us not to dictate the linguistic level at which our students should be reading: everything suggests that those opting for works with low level English do so because they do not have the confidence to tackle more demanding texts but that, when they have acquired this, they move on of their own accord to more challenging works. In other words, it is an evolutionary process and not one which should be forced.
Of course, none of this helps teachers to get students reading in the first place and, so, I would like to suggest a few simple tactics by which we can introduce our students to writers of their own choosing.
If our students associate us as teachers with books on the syllabus that have left them cold, it may be a good idea to ask their classmates to recommend some. Bookshops have long followed this practice by encouraging their staff to jot down a very few lines on their favourite novels or biographies and sticking these to the shelves on which they are stocked.
Another option is to introduce reading circles so that four or five students – each with a different role in the group – read the same novel, jointly selected by all their members, which they can then chat about. One member of the circle might talk about the heroes of a text and another the villains, picking out the traits they most admire or dislike in their personalities. A third could talk about the time and place where the action of a story takes place. The fourth member of the circle could collate the opinions of all the others and decide whether this was a book they could comfortably recommend to their friends (Bamford & Day: 1998).
There are, of course, other roles that a teacher might decide upon: illustrator, sequel- or prequel planner, and the like. The important point is that each member of the group should be active, and not rely on her peers to do all her work for her!
Another strategy might be for the teacher herself to come up with a list of books available in the school and fill in a form detailing: length, level of linguistic complexity, genre, and so on. Students can then choose the one they prefer – and, needless to add, change it if they decide that it is not, after all, the kind of book they want to read.
If it just seems too much to expect that students will read a book outside the school premises, then you might try to convince your school administration to adopt a DEAR programme – DEAR being the acronym for Drop Everything And Read – for a period or two a week. This is where the whole school engages in silent reading time. And ‘whole’ must mean ‘whole’: the head, teachers, admin staff, students: everyone! (Sheldrick Ross, et al.: 2006)
In the US, proponents of DEAR were at first very dubious about getting other subject teachers on side because a class devoted to DEAR meant the loss of one on maths or science or sport. Yet, the benefits of DEAR programmes were so evident so quickly that teaching staff, regardless of their specialist area, were converted and many schools adopted a rota whereby DEAR lessons substituted for a different subject each week. (National Center for Education Statistics: 1999)
However, all these methods pale into insignificance when compared to the effect that a teacher modelling reading for pleasure has on her classes. If we carry a novel or a self-help book around with us and leave it on our desks as we are teaching, if we are seen to read ourselves, if we sometimes refer to the content of books we have enjoyed and occasionally ask our students what they might be reading, all the evidence suggests that many of our students will follow suit (Krashen: 2006).
I do not wish to pretend that we can overnight turn all the apathetic or even reluctant readers in our classes into literati. We cannot. But if we can inspire most, some, or just a few to take up reading, then we are introducing them to a friend that will stay beside them throughout life. We are putting them on the path of lifelong learning so that they will know how to train themselves in areas where they need to develop, whether personally or professionally, no matter if that is at school or university, in their jobs or, equally importantly, in their leisure time. As Mark Twain may or may not have written – the jury is still out on that one:
“The man who cannot read has no advantage over the man who cannot.”
Surely, there can be few roles a teacher can perform which are more important than getting her students to take this on board.
Mark Bartholomew, co-founder of Read Listen Learn
This post was originally published in TEYLT Worldwide - the newsletter of the IATEFL Young Learners and Teenagers Special Interest Group, which you can view online here
Image: by Eneas De Troya from Mexico City, México (Lectura para unas vidas) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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