by Autumn Lamphier, Uplift Summit International Preparatory, 10th grade English Teacher
One day, one of my school administrators pulled me aside and asked me what I thought the biggest gap was for our struggling and English Language Learner students. I said access and exposure to reading materials and thus vocabulary. It can’t be that easy though- can we really change the trajectory of literacy by simply selling reading to kids and letting them read what THEY want to read?
I had my students do a Reader’s Autobiography assignment the first week of school and I found some startling things. One of my students who struggles said he didn’t read an English book until the 5th grade. That was only five years ago. Another had bad experiences in elementary school with teachers who rewarded good readers and she was never rewarded. Others said they stopped enjoying reading when they were assigned novels and weren’t given choices in reading circa 6th or 7th grade.
Why do we assign novels? I assign them to expose and explain how to think and communicate about what literature has the power to do. In any novel I teach my scholars, I’m focused on helping them put all the pieces together to form meaning. We teach novels to teach them what pieces to look for and how to understand the meaning author’s form using literary devices. I can tell them Life of Pi by Yann Martel is an allegory, but if they haven’t experienced putting the pieces together themselves, they won’t ever see it in any other novel.
Perhaps we take the love of reading away when we make it complicated? In elementary school, we discuss stories and books with excitement. In middle school, reading becomes the “haves” and “have-nots” and kids are grouped accordingly. Instead, what if we assigned novels out of a love and sell them and actually talk about the traits of a reader and what readers do?
Maybe we shouldn’t bucket “good readers” and “bad readers” but instead “Readers” as a general term. Readers do these things: we all practice these things to increase who we are as readers. We lose the “reader identity” when we force them into boxes of what WE think is great literature. I’m not proposing we don’t assign kids books anymore, I’m saying we change the lingo and focus in which we teach said novels and give choices of novel that will teach kids how to deepen who they are as readers with being able to put all the pieces together themselves. Instead of teaching reading, let’s teach kids what it is and means to be a reader.