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Saturday, 4 July 2015

The English Teacher's Struggle: Reading for Pleasure.

Encouraging students to read is the biggest struggle for teachers of English. I want children to read, but I also want them to love reading. How do I do that? How can I make them feel affection for something? I deal in knowledge and skills; emotions and feelings cannot be taught. Life would perhaps be easier if we could. Today class, I'm going to teach you how to feel happy even when life is getting you down...

I apologise if this is something you disagree with. Of course, teachers do try to assist pupils in dealing with their emotions, to encourage them to respond appropriately to certain situations, to ensure they have adequate social skills when they leave school- but to make them feel a genuine passion for something, such as reading, is not part of the job role. 

And whilst the desire to make them love reading is forever present, as is the desire to just make them read. Just read. Please. Students. Time to read. Read anything. Read a book. A newspaper. Just. Read

But in making them read, in setting reading for homework, in having set time for reading, in making them read the same book as everyone else in the class... are we encouraging them to love reading? Or are we just forcing them to read - but never read for pleasure?

(I actually don't have any answers for this. If you've come here looking for some sort of solution to solve the issue of getting teenagers to read then this is most certainly the wrong place. I think this was just my opportunity to ramble on my frustration on this topic.)

Can we really force students to love reading? Is that not a paradox in itself - and, if we can't force them to love reading, can we encourage them? When we "encourage" them, are they doing it for the right reasons? Are they reading because they want to? And can anyone actually read passively, properly?

The first thing I feel I need to consider is why I want them to read in the first place. I'd love to think it's for the reasons I should say: so they can develop their spelling and grammar; so they can build a richer vocabulary; so they can absorb skills and apply in their writing; so they can have a thorough understanding of how language works; so they know how to retrieve key information; so they develop the ability to skim and scan texts; so they can read explicit and implicit meaning in texts in all subjects; so they can apply all the necessary reading skills when they arrive in their place of work. 

But in reality, that's not why I want my students to read for pleasure. I believe that stories are a form of escapism, and I believe that every child has a right to escape. But in reality, you can only actually escape if you take part in the journey itself. So if I'm forcing a story into the hands of a teenager, are they actively partaking in the journey the book offers them? Are they escaping? Or are they just following the instructions, going through the motions, sat there for half an hour (as that was the stipulated homework time) and maybe even reading the words, but not actually reading?

So what do I try and do to make reading more about enjoyment than going through the motions?

I discuss what they're reading: There is nothing more important than asking students what they are reading, whether they are enjoying it, what they like about the book they are reading, and if they would recommend it to me. Sometimes it works if I have read it too, but I'm always honest, and sometimes it's nice to take their suggestions and follow them up. 

I genuinely read what they tell me to: I know I was about three years after the bandwagon, but I recently read the Hunger Games trilogy in about a week after a student was offended (and I mean offended) because I told her I hadn't read them. I couldn't wait to see her on the Monday after the weekend of finishing Mockingjay and discuss them all with her. 

I don't forget: Teaching is a terrifyingly constant job and sometimes we are too busy and miss out on potentials moments with the individual students in favour of the collective. I try to remember what individual students are reading, and ask them how they are getting on with it. And when it seems to be taking an age for them to finish the book, I ask them why they have stopped reading it. 

I praise them for reading: Mostly verbally, but it is important that students understand that reading is beneficial and that teachers are proud when they give their precious, life-filled time to reading. 

But, most ironically, I sometimes force them to read: Only sometimes. But I do. Ridiculous really, after everything I have just written. But I do. I sometimes - not constantly, that would be overkill - do set reading homeworks. Because in discussions with students, I find that it isn't reading they don't like, it's choosing reading over their friends, their social media, their phones, their gaming... etc. If I'm going to set them a homework either way, why can't it be reading? Why not force them to set half an hour aside to read?

Because I started this by saying that forcing students to read and getting students to love reading is, in reality a paradox. And it is. But the truth is, that one can lead to another. In forcing students to read - not constantly, but in small amounts, then I genuinely believe that we might unlock a love of reading, if they have the right book. 

And I guess that's the biggest battle. Some students say they don't like reading. My mantra has always been, if you don't like reading, you just haven't found the right book yet. That is my job. If I want students to love reading, to read regularly, to gain all the right skills, and to escape, then I need to find them the right book. And that is a struggle too, but is one I will face every day if it will help them learn to love to read. 

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