Thursday, May 5, 2016

Why won't you read?

As the school year winds down, I'm doing a lot of thinking about the teaching of reading, how it's gone this year, and what I want to change for next year.  Please bear with me as I think through some of this here on my blog. 

After some excruciating math, I've determined that about 23% of my students continue to resist reading with everything they've got.  15% of my students are making little to no progress, with five kids proudly marching in the wrong direction entirely, testing at a lower reading level this spring than last fall.  But I'm still worried about that other 8% too, because I have no idea how they've made any reading gains at all, since they Will.  Not.  Read. (My best guess is that they didn't try at all on the fall test, and kind of tried on the spring test, so it made it look like they were getting somewhere.)

Unsurprisingly, of the seventeen students I'm most worried about, only two have more than a 2.0 GPA--that's a C average.  Twelve of them have below a D average.  We're talking five F's and a D in PE.  My first, ignoble though was, "So, it's not all my fault--they aren't working for anyone else either."  But obviously, if you can't read, it's hard to be successful at school.  Likewise, if you feel like a failure everywhere you go, it's difficult to get motivated and enthusiastic about trying harder.  So it IS kind of on me.  I'm the adult, one trained in education, no less.  If I can't figure out how to help them escape their rut of apathy and disengagement, who can?

Here's what I've tried:  I've asked them about their interests and bought books specifically for them.  (Trust me "2016 Soccer Stars" and "What is the Superbowl?" would not be in a library that catered only to my tastes.)  I've handed them picture books and graphic novels, both of which are acceptable things to read in my class--meaning their peers read them too.  I've checked out audiobooks for them, with and without the hard copy to read along.  I've encouraged them to buddy read with their friends. I've talked to them about why they find it hard to find a good book, and why they find it hard to keep reading beyond a few pages.  I've conferenced with them one-on-one, and I've pulled them in small groups.  I've done file searches to find out what earlier teachers and testing had to say.  I've invented errands in the middle of the period to give them a chance to stand up and get moving.  I've helped them find online articles about their interests.

I've read aloud.

Other than reading aloud, which engages two or three of my adamant non-readers, none of it has helped.  There is enough of a reading culture in my class that they want to look like they're reading at least some of the time, so most of them check books out, hold them in front of their faces, maybe even read a few pages, or at least look at them.  A few of the kids are loud and boisterous.  Reading, they tell me,  is hard, and boring, and they are constantly trying to get their classmates off task, or get me engaged in some side conversation, or throwing pencils at the ceiling, or ANYTHING.  Many more of the kids are quiet.  They would be content to sit and hold a book and have me leave them alone.  They are more likely to tell me what they think I want to hear, that they DO like reading, it's just they haven't found a book lately.

They don't like it when I try to talk to them about reading, about their lack of engagement.  Their eyes slip away from mine, their voices dwindle.  Lots of shrugs and half smiles, mixed with declarations that "there aren't any interesting books," but "I think this one looks okay."  It never is, and gets abandoned within a day or two.

Considering that every single one of my students was placed into my class instead of an elective, and that they were all placed there because they are reading 2-5 grade levels below where they "should" be, I need to keep sight of the fact that 77% of them ARE making progress, and ARE reading, at least one book every six weeks, which is a significant jump for many of them.  40% of my students will not need a reading support class next year, because they've caught up to within one year of their peers.  Some students are reading at ever increasing volumes.  Some are building up a significant TBR lists.   Some exchange titles and recommendations without any prompting.

If I focus on the majority, I could convince myself I've been successful this year.

Still, I want to figure out the remaining group of kids who won't read.  This, to me, is a far more compelling issue than anything I find out from state testing.  I won't see those numbers until the middle of the next school year, anyway.  I can look around my room right now and say "That kid, and that one, and that one over there--they still haven't read a whole book this year."

As someone who lives and breathes books, it's hard for me to understand how completely unappealing they are to some students.  I feel like it must be a mechanical issue--that the ACT of reading must be getting in their way.  Humans are hard-wired to enjoy stories, aren't we?  Is there such thing as being cheerfully illiterate in the 21st century?  Because honestly, if you are reading at a 3rd grade level in the 8th grade, you are functionally illiterate.

You don't actually need to love reading to become literate.  But if you hate reading, that is such a huge impediment to becoming literate.

I'll keep searching for answers.


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  3. I don’t think I could ever teach kids. I would get so frustrated if I couldn’t help them. It’s awesome that the majority of your students are making progress.

    I can kind of relate to your struggling students because I’ve been in their place. I hated reading when I was a kid. I was in special reading classes for almost all of elementary school because I was reading way below my grade level. I think I hated reading because I always felt like I was failing at it, and there was a lot of pressure to get it right. I’ve never been able to perform well under pressure.

    I think bullying actually made me a better student. I was in a bunch of special classes (plus counseling) because I generally sucked at life. Having other kids call me “retard” and “special ed” all the time motivated me to try harder to be “normal.” Bullying probably isn’t a healthy way to make a person “normal,” though.

    I’m going to shut up now because I feel like I’m writing a book in the comment section of your blog . . . :)

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

    1. I like long comments; it means I've struck some sort of chord! But yeah, "Bullied until conformed" is not really something I want to promote. Kids SUCK for saying crap like that to you. Adults suck too, but most of us hide it better.

  4. Are you sure you aren't teaching MY class of struggling readers? The two students who requested my class because they knew they needed help ended up being chosen for leadership awards and one even got "commended" or the new buzz word for it on the State test. I've seen a girl who never passed a state exam go from crying because she was in my class to passing the reading & math... and probably science and social studies - she'll never be an avid reader but she can follow the story line and connect to the characters. That's a huge win in my book! A few others are now readers who still struggle in testing situations but have developed the grit to keep reading - also a win. But I also have a handful of those same students who are so adamant that they can't or won't read that they do anything to drag others down with them. I look forward to seeing the strategies you use with them next year and trying again next year and implementing the PD I'm taking over the summer.

    1. What kind of PD are you taking?

      Yes, there is that whole "you can lead a horse to water" thing, but it's hard when you are all, "Hey horse! I know you're dehydrated! Stop denying it!"

  5. Wow. It sounds like you've tried everything. More importantly it sounds like you care about them ... A LOT. My hunch is they've already set themselves in their little rut because maybe they didn't have teachers in past years who cared as much. I remember for me, it did start with finding the type of book I liked first. Then, I had more of an interest not only in the subject but also the characters. Also, there's more today in the way of distractions. Wish I had the magic answer.
    @dino0726 from 
    FictionZeal - Impartial, Straightforward Fiction Book Reviews

    1. I really wanted to get each kid to connect to at least ONE book this year. It's not a panacea, but it sure is a huge step in the right direction.

  6. This is always sad but yet it always seems to happen with a few students. I work with upper elementary (5th and 6th grade) and we have some of the same problems.

    There are always some students who refuse to read no matter what we do. You sound like you've tried everything and that you care as much as we do. We can only do so much. If a student chooses not to read, we can't change that. We can only hope to change what we can actually influence.

    We try to get peers to talk to those who don't like to read and encourage them. Sometimes they can suggest books we wouldn't think of. We have such a large classroom library that almost every interest is represented somewhere.

    One of our 6th grade boys wouldn't read until he found some Tim Green books (novels on sports) that he enjoyed. Now he doesn't want to stop reading!

    We have other students who have really enjoyed the Amulet series and the Lunch Lady books. I had a student this year who read the graphic novel for the first Babysitters Club book as well.

    But then there are always the students who just don't care. We've found that we can't make them care. We try our best but some of them just won't pick up a book. It is a struggle every quarter to get one of our students to read anything. A few weeks ago we finally grabbed a nonfiction picture book on snakes because we, the teachers in the room, didn't like it. He read that one simply because we told him we'd never read it. :-) At least it was one book.

    Hang in there and just do the best you can. I've found that we can't make a difference in the life of every student, much as we'd like to.

    I hope this long, rambling comment makes sense and that you enjoy the end of the school year.

  7. Well, it sounds like you've made some huge progress with your class, but I totally understand that you don't want to focus on the positive and simply give up on the students who aren't making progress. You obviously care deeply about your students, so you have the most important part down. My son has a lot of cognitive delays, and reading is a huge struggle for him. It's just been this year that he's started to WANT to read a bit more. Before this, he just got frustrated with it, and wanted to give up - plus, he's gotten sick of Level 2 readers and wants things that are more at his age level, so it's nice that we've found a few books that work better for him (he's in fifth grade). Sounds like you have the really tough job of motivating some kids who just don't want to try anymore. I feel for you!!

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction


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