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Fake It 'Til You Make It


Hiding a magazine inside a book, reading the same page for 20 minutes, or holding a book upside down—it isn’t funny when you witness students reading like this in a classroom. Fake readers can often identify words and read them out loud, but fail to understand the material they are reading. By the time fake readers arrive in my sixth grade class, they possess coping skills that hide their inability to read a book and comprehend it. Many of these students have earned A’s and B’s in language arts classes in previous years and passed state achievement tests, but they still cannot read well.

How students could fake read and still succeed in school baffled me for a long time, until I realized that certain widely-used instructional practices actually foster fake reading. In her book, I Read It, But I Don't Get It, author Cris Tovani (who admits she fake-read her way through school) says, "Too many adolescent readers know how to fake read. They have become so good at playing the 'game of school,' that they've figured out how to get a good grade without getting the comprehension." So, what game are fake readers playing? Consider how these activities allow students to fake read:

Whole-class novels and literature circles—Fake readers wait for the class discussions about the assigned reading and pick up details about the book from the other students and the teacher. I remember such discussions from my days in school. The teacher pointed out the literary terms, provided text examples, and reinforced her interpretation of the book. It did not take an English degree to determine what would be on the end-of-unit test!

Round robin or popcorn reading—Fake readers are often good at decoding. When they are called on to read out loud in front of the class, they can word call their way through a short piece of text. Since round robin reading does not require readers to comprehend an entire reading selection, fake readers can, once again, depend on the understanding of other students and information provided by the teacher to build meaning.

Standardized test practice—Many students will tell you that they don’t even have to read the passages in standardized tests in order to successfully answer the questions. Years of instruction in test-taking tricks provides fake readers with a host of strategies they can use to narrow down or guess test answers without reading. Give your students a test passage and questions, without the multiple choice answers, and see how they do.

So, what can teachers do about it? How can we ferret out those students who fake read in our classes? Do we even care if students fake it as long as they can pass our classes and tests? The truth is that fake readers are getting a fake education and will never make the grade.

We must be careful when implementing any classroom activity that allows students to ride the comprehension coattails of other students (or us). Expect students to respond in writing to the material they read and provide evidence to support their opinions. Require students to independently read material most of the time. And provide instruction in strategies that improve students’ comprehension of authentic reading material, not just their test performance.

Finally, engage students in frank conversations about their fake reading behaviors. Let your students know that these behaviors are unacceptable and offer to help students overcome these habits. This dialogue will create a stronger reading community in your classroom—one built on a foundation of honesty and improvement instead of playing the game.


I am currently in the an elementary education program. I have seen children that can read but once they are done reading they have know idea what they have just read. I think sometimes their mind is just somewhere else, they are reading but not paying attention to the story. They are more focused on what they are thinking about. I think a good way to prevent this from happening in your class is to let them read so much of a story and then discuss it out loud in class. If pay attention to what their classmates are telling they will maybe be more interseted in paying attention to what they are reading.

I am a recently retired classroom teacher and now an independent Language Arts consultant in Canada. Once again I applaud your insights into reading (and not reading). I know from my own daughter's experiences about fake reading; how she was able to get A's on all her literary essays in Honours English classes . . . AND NEVER OPENED A BOOK, LET ALONE READ ONE. As teachers we really must know what reading really is - and stop having kids "barking at print."



It is ironic that I posted about this topic in a different way on Oct tenth. I think that kids fake read for all the reasons you stated! Absolutely I agree with you!!! I also think that the kids have not been taught how to pick books that are just right for them. Kids might 'know' their levels or their zpd's, or that they read level magenta or m, but do they know whay it is their level? Can our students walk into a bookstore and buy a perfect just right book?

I am a former fake reader. When I was in high school literature, I NEVER read the assigned reading. I would then do just as this article states...listen to the discussion and catch on. When the teacher asked a question that could be answered without reading the text, I made sure I added my input. This way, the teacher pretty much left me alone and I floated by. I ended up with my only C in high school, but at the time, I felt it was worth it because I hardly did a lick of the work. I got all A's and B's in reading the rest of my life. Though I could read really well, I avoided reading novels at all costs. Another way to cure fake readers is to plug them into the right KIND of book. It's more than just a "Just Right" book. Yes, the level is important, but more than that, it's the genre and the subject. As an adult I finally found my reading passion: true crime and teacher tip books. When I was a kid, adults kept trying to get me to read humor books and sports biographies. I was into sports and had a good sense of humor, however, I wasn't interested in reading books on these subjects. I have never been into crime (ha ha) but for some reason, these books grab me. Keep this in mind when you are trying to cure the fake readers. We have to get at the root of the issue, not just hold them accountable on the back end.

I agree whole-heartedly with your comments about fake readers and the necessity for them to prove themselves worthy of their A's and B's. But I was particularly moved by your eloquent paragraph, "We read because. .." Would you allow me to share part of this column with my colleagues? They are just beginning to TEACH writing, rather than assigning it, and I want to show them prime examples of the craft. Naturally I will be sure to include proper attribution. I'm sure your upcoming book with be a delight.

I'm with Tim - the key to helping readers quit faking is to connect them with text they not only CAN read, but also WANT to read.

Faking reading? Word calling? Comprehension? Understanding? It is my belief that there are also non-readers. While non-readers will use fake reading techniques, they actually can read but don't. It is a reading avoidance strategy that could be rooted in a painful experience they associate with reading. It could have been a sharp remark by a friend or sibling who associated good readers with something evil. It could have been a teacher (oh woe!) who reprimanded the student for some minor indiscretion the student related to reading. No matter. The effect is the same - the student finds reading causes painful memories. The good news is that such a student can be helped through many years of psychoanalysis or, just one caring person who creates an environment where the student actually enjoys reading just once. I believe that Harry Potter actually compelled some students to overcome their avoidance and read. The trick, I believe, is to find a book that the student wants to read - in fact needs to read. While this will work with non-readers, I believe that fake readers need direct reading instruction coupled with a need to read.
On another post mention was made of rendering sentences and reading down to its constituent parts - parsing. I tell a story to my students about the value of parsing and the study of grammar. Imagine that you would like to study rabbits. You go out into the wild, trap a bunny and spirit it off to your lab for study. In the lab, you dissect and label and analyze the rabbit. You have conducted a forensic analysis of the bunny. Then, you carefully and methodically put every piece back together and say, "Hop, bunny, hop." Tragically, you have killed the bunny. Another part of your study will involve observing the bunny in its environment. You study its mating, playing, foraging, sounds, hopping, and every pattern of the bunny's life. You collect that information and now know why a bunny hops. In the study of writing, analysis of grammar and constituent parts of sentences has value, but the bunny will die in the process. We cannot expect students to forensically analyze writing and attempt to put it together with anything like a life. Instead, the student should be looking at writing in the wild and observing and attending to the constituent parts of novels, poetry, pamphlets, advertisements, billboards, instructions, text messaging, blogs and any other writing. This writing can be observed for what it does then forensically analyzed for why and in what way it does it. A final observation: Why are English textbooks written with writing that is already a dead rabbit? Each of the exemplars in these books has been sucked of life and we ask that students use them as models for writing?

I use Fountas and Pinnells strategies for Intermediate Reader's Workshop in my classroom (just started this year using it in my 5th grade class).
My students have begun to write response letters to me in their journals about what they are reading and I just cannot seem to get them past just telling me the book is great or having them tell me just a few things that happen in the book.
We have had minilessons where I present them with a letter I wrote about a book I read and we generated a list of things they can write about. But they can't get past the basics! Arggghhh!
I wanted to start literature circles for the first time in a few months, but after reading this I am not so sure I should.
What do you suggest for my students' problems with their lackluster journal letters? What do you suggest in place of literature circles that breed fake readers?
I want so badly for my students to love reading again and know it is something that can be done outside of tests and language arts textbooks.


I use reader's response letters in my classroom, too, and I have encountered the issues you describe. Students are used to writing book reports and summaries for teachers and are unaccustomed to a teacher soliciting their heartfelt opinions about books. It takes time before they realize that you mean it when you tell them you want their honest reactions to the books they read. Some things you might consider doing:

Any time a student writes an authentic response (the type you expect from students), ask that student if you can share their entry and your response to it with the class. All students benefit from the modeling and feedback.Since I have required these letters for several years, I keep a file folder of responses between previous year's students (with their permission) and me to show students what I want.

Make response letters the focus of your conferences for a week or so. Talk with each student about their recent entries and how they miss the mark or meet it.

As for your concerns about literature circles, I think you could still use lit. circles effectively if you could reposition the practice so that students cannot fake it during their group's discussions. Can students complete the responses for their "jobs" before they meet with their groups and write a reflection of how their understanding changed or grew after talking with their peers?

Good topic and very relevant, Donalyn. The National School Supply & Equipment Association (NSSEA) is looking for new teacher bloggers and could use someone like you. Contact [email protected] if you're interested.

I second Donalyn's comments...wholeheartedly! I have been using a reader's workshop approach to teaching reading for several years and in fact train others on RWS. Here is a little pointer for successful RTL's (Response To Literature): Teach the students that some of their writing is book and some is brain. I tell my kids that I want twice as much brain as book in their letters. I have the kids literally use one color crayon to underline all the parts of their letter that talk directly about what happened in the book. They then use a second color to underline everything that came from their brains relating to that part of the book. At a glance, students and teacher can see if the proper ratio of brain to book has been met.
I'm sure you probably are already doing this, but just to be sure...teach and model metacognition during your read aloud time. Be sure to go through the 7 Keys to comprehension systematically and require the kids to include the current thinking strategy in their letters. For example, if you are going through "questioning" tell students to share something that happened in their book and then one or two questions they had while reading this part of the book. I don't start doing letters with my kids until about the 3rd month of the school year. To prepare them, I do a lot of verbal modeling, I have the kids doing a ton of verbal RTL's with neighbors, and I require the kids to put thinking stickies in their books as they read during RWS. This way, when it comes time to write the letters, it's a real natural step...they just write what they've been speaking over the last several weeks.

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Recent Comments

  • Tim Bedley: Carrie, I second Donalyn's comments...wholeheartedly! I have been using a read more
  • NSSEA: Good topic and very relevant, Donalyn. The National School Supply read more
  • Donalyn Miller: Carrie- I use reader's response letters in my classroom, too, read more
  • Carrie: I use Fountas and Pinnells strategies for Intermediate Reader's Workshop read more
  • Dan: Faking reading? Word calling? Comprehension? Understanding? It is my belief read more



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