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Is Literacy Fun-Damental? Teaching Reading for Pleasure

A source of constant bedevilment for me, and probably for most English teachers these days, is the fact that many kids will tell you they just don't "like" reading. A recent article in The Atlantic stressed the importance not only of teaching students good literacy skills for a future in a "globally-competitive world" (thanks for that beautiful turn of phrase, Arne Duncan) but also of emphasizing the sheer joy of reading. To the many English teachers like me, who joined this profession precisely because we loved reading, this may seem intuitively obvious; however, that's easier said than done.

Many of the kids come into my 10th grade class saying that they "hate reading" or have never read an entire book on their own. (I could also talk at length about their low reading levels, but there's enough to say about that for an entire series of posts, so I won't go into it here.) Even the students who end up enjoying my class and saying English is their favorite subject still don't see these changes as having to do with reading; they like English because they enjoy the activities we do--reading, sure, but also acting, group-work, and various creative projects, not to mention the sense of self-efficacy they may gain from seeing that if you take notes and study, you can do well on a quiz (not particular to English, but something I strive to convey by pulling quiz material directly from their daily notes.)

To address this antipathy towards the printed word, I try really hard to find books that will be "cool" for the kids. William Golding's Lord of the Flies is a great one for 10th graders; it's the first book a lot of them read that allows them to really see how symbolism can enhance a narrative, and make it really scary! Elie Wiesel's Night is another one; the visceral and graphic narration, along with the fact that it tells a true Holocaust story, are both factors that help me to win over a lot of readers. The kids also like books with interesting narrative styles: Art Spiegelman's Maus and Marjane Satrape's Persepolis, both graphic novels, challenge the way the kids think of "books" by presenting comics as a legitimate means of story-telling.

Some might think the students need books about their particular ethnic groups to become interested, but that's generally not proven true in my case. For instance, a book they appear to have all read and loathed in middle school is Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street, a book no doubt chosen with the well-meaning idea of appealing to a majority of Latino students. "Never make us read that book again," they plead (as though I'd be inclined to repeat a book they'd already read.) I think the problem with Mango Street, despite the potential for cultural connectivity, is that the kids find it somewhat dated--its setting in the 1960s Chicago trumps the fact that the narrator is Latina or a teenager. A book they like better, despite the fact that none of them identify as Native American, is Sherman Alexei's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Though life in the Reservation isn't an experience they initially can identify with (through studies of socio-economic inequalities, they ultimately start to make connections between Reservation life and that of urban communities), the novel's protagonist Arnold Spirit is a teenager in the early 2000's--and for many of the kids, that is sufficient to make his narrative at least somewhat worthwhile.

Then, of course, there are the aliens, vampires, dystopian rebels, and zombies. There seems to be no accounting for which kids will like these escapist genres, though every year there is a group of kids who do. These kids are usually not the ones I worry about disliking reading; by having realized that books can allow them to live some sort of vivid fantasy life, these kids are already converts to literacy. Despite my belief that many of the stories in these books (ahem, Twilight) are quite silly, I'm happy to see the kids reading anything, and I try to engage with them by reading their novels so that we can all discuss. Oddly, knowing that I'm reading too, and that they want to have already gotten to the end before I do so that they can lord spoilers over me ("See, Miss? I TOLD you The Hunger Games is crazy!"), has proven a powerful motivator. With this crew, reading is seldom a solitary pursuit.

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