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Why Do Students Love (or Hate) to Read? This Teacher Asks Hers to Figure That Out for Themselves

“Learning is not a spectator sport.” #projectliteracy

An excerpt from a student’s “literacy portfolio.” Image courtesy Jess Burnquist.

Time and time again, research has shown that when students own their learning—when they are able to have a say in what and how they learn—the gains they make in the classroom truly last. Test scores increase and failure rates fall, especially when it comes to certain subjects. Putting students in the proverbial driver’s seat is called active learning, and it’s been raved about by educational researchers since at least 1987, when Arthur W. Chickering and Zelda F. Gamson famously said in an article for the American Association for Higher Education that:

  • “Learning is not a spectator sport … [Students] must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences and apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves.”

As an educator myself, I’ve seen the power of active learning firsthand—especially when it comes to reading and writing. It may be obvious that engaging young readers in lively, fun lessons is a good idea (and yes, research suggests that active literacy learning has a positive impact on student achievement and motivation for children in grades K-3). But to maintain those strong outcomes, students must continue to be actively engaged throughout their reading lives.

As a high school English teacher, I encounter students after they’ve experienced years of challenges and judgments in and out of the classroom. If they already struggle with literacy and hate to read, the statistics say they’re likely to continue to do so for the rest of their lives. Despite all that, I’ve found that actively engaging students—even the ones who’ve long ago “checked out”—in one incredibly interactive project has been enough to get them excited about reading and learning in general.

That project is what I call the “literacy portfolio”—in which I ask students to dig deep into their literacy histories, recalling experiences both good and bad that get to the heart of their relationships to reading and writing. I first discovered this kind of project years ago while teaching at a community college. A similar assignment was included in my teacher’s edition of the college-assigned textbook, suggested by Maureen Goggin of Arizona State University.

An excerpt from a student’s “literacy portfolio.” Image courtesy Jess Burnquist.

Back then, many of my adult students had been out of school for 10 or more years, and often they were the students who would come to office hours to let me know how much they despised reading and/or writing. It became clear that they had been scarred by negative educational or at-home experiences. How could I effectively instruct them if they doubted their ability so strongly? They needed to be able to reclaim their natural curiosity for reading all kinds of writing and to restore some amount of confidence in their literacy abilities in order to grow.

It seems like an impossible task, but the literacy portfolio did the trick. This single assignment has proven to be one of the best tools I’ve found for self-driven learning and reflection. Students who complete the assignment must become autonomous in the process and they must also confront an abundance or lack of intrinsic motivation in a subject that is universal in its importance.

So on the very first day of class, I don’t go through the syllabus with my high school sophomores. Instead, I share with them my personal literacy portfolio—a one-inch thick binder that contains 10 illustrated and handwritten memories of my literacy journey. Then I ask them to make their own.

An excerpt from a student’s “literacy portfolio.” Image courtesy Jess Burnquist.

Before we’ve even gotten to know each other, I explain that as their teacher, I can only do so much to encourage their growth as readers and writers. Ultimately, the decision is theirs, I say. But, how are they going to make an informed decision if they don’t consider their literacy histories? Perhaps they love reading and writing—tracing their relationship with literacy may help to preserve that adoration. Or maybe they dread English class. If so, then thinking about the arc of their literacy might shine a light on when things took a turn. After all, most children remember a favorite story or a first book with fondness—so what happened to change that? I like to say that if you can pinpoint when things went really well or really wrong, then you have the ability to redefine your relationship with reading and writing this year.

A week later, my students share their portfolios. Their insights into their reading and writing lives are unfailingly rich and thoughtful, and by reading them, I’m able to find out about their struggles before our year truly begins. This kind of sharing is invaluable as I set out to create meaningful lessons. Data is the name of the education game these days, and in many ways, I use my literacy portfolios to gather it, keeping tabs on reflections about reading and writing over time. Just this year, students have given me plenty to dig into:

“In the fourth grade, I was reading this book for SSR (Self-selected reading) and it didn’t follow the reading levels set by the school. As I was reading, my teacher came up to me and told me to put the book away, simply because it was ‘above’ my reading level, even though I wasn’t having trouble with it.”

“When I was in 7th grade, I realized that not all writing had to be a story or a book. I became fascinated with dreams and created a dream journal. It was amazing how I could be so descriptive and detailed when writing about them. My entries are from September 2013-July2015.”

“…around this time A.R. (Accelerated Reading) started. The point was to assess your reading level. I always thought this was limiting the books I could read.”

“I am pretty sure that A.R. stands for Accelerated Reading. I remember doing A.R. since 1st grade. That is when I started reading on a daily basis. When I was doing A.R., I felt like it was mandatory. That is probably the culprit of why [I] don’t read for pleasure. I have never really been good at A.R.”

“The House on Mango Street is extremely important to me because it’s really when I started to love writing. I didn’t like the book per se but I really enjoyed the themes and the symbolism in this book. Writing and learning about poverty really changed my view of the world.”

“I never really minded reading until I was forced to read books I wasn’t interested in.”

“Having started the 8th grade I read a little bit but tried to keep up with school work [too]. My school work had to come first so reading never really happened.”

These reflections reveal an awful lot about the way reading for pleasure, based on autonomous interests, gets pushed to the wayside. From the first moment I began teaching high school, it was clear that intrinsic motivation had to exist in order for students to progress in any meaningful way. This assignment serves these purposes beautifully—and what the students’ portfolios reveal about general education’s effect on developing literacy should not be overlooked.

According to my students, many of the activities they had to participate in during the younger grades contributed to their rocky relationships with reading and writing. And most of the students who traced strong affinities for reading and writing indicated that they live in reading households. That’s no surprise: According to the National Center for Education Statistics, “the average [reading] score for students who reported having all four types of reading materials (books, magazines, newspapers, encyclopedia) in their home was higher than those who reported having fewer reading materials.”

To be clear, I don’t give this assignment to serve as a blame game. Nobody is free from criticism, least of all educators ourselves—despite the fact that we are increasingly being directed away from the road of common sense in order to meet demands from administrators, parents, state and federal standards, and more. Every year that I give this assignment, I must fight harder to create some kind of space where students can preserve or mend their relationship with literacy, and to honor the revelations they share with me about their pasts.

First of all, collecting students’ portfolio reflections demands that I set new lesson perimeters. These days, I’m adamant about reading for reading’s sake. Students select a book from our library and read for 45 minutes each block day at the end of the week. They do not write a report, nor do they make a presentation about their book. They read to read. On classroom reading days, if I see students getting drowsy, I assume they are bored by their book and send them back to the library with student recommendations in hand. If a student tries to read his or her chemistry book for an assignment, I have them put it away. We’re reading for pleasure, not demand.

By the second month of school, my students yell at me if I short them on their reading time. (There’s not much more rewarding for a teacher than having a student with a low-level literacy proficiency ask for more reading time.)

Even though I’ve organized both my personal and professional lives around reading and writing, not every memory in my own literacy portfolio is a good one. Open up my binder and you’ll find out about how I learned to spell the word “M-O-M” with wooden blocks. But you’ll also see me nearly fail third grade because of my poor cursive; you’ll find out about the moment I discovered that words could express anger in the form of “hate notes” to my parents when my brother was born. You’ll get a peek at the poems I wrote in the margins of my math book, and hear about how my tenth grade English teacher accused me of plagiarism. After that, I didn’t really want to try hard on any other assignment until I started college. (That’s in my portfolio, too.)

The arc of everyone’s reading and writing life is different; complicated; rife with both inspiration and frustration. But we must dig down to the roots of our literacy histories before we can build a solid foundation of lifelong learning and critical thinking upon them. Ultimately, when I’m responsive to my students’ literacy experiences—altering accordingly both how I structure class time and how I approach the way I teach the curriculum—my students experience growth. I see it in their test scores. More important, I see it in their zeal for learning.

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