Learning Reading or Loving Reading?

English/Language Arts teachers are usually book lovers. We are intrinsically motivated to read, and we readily enjoy the pleasures of books. We have internalized effective ways to process literary and informational texts. We understand the context of most books we read. By this I mean that we see how each book fits into a genre, era, an author’s body of work, or countless other ways to analytically categorize a particular title. For us, loving books, knowing how to read, and appreciating literature are synthesized in our reading lives, and we go about the world with this bookish inclination as a part of our identities.

It may be different for students though. Yesterday I found myself saying in an online discussion forum that “teaching reading, teaching literature, and nurturing a love of reading are three different pedagogies with some overlapping areas.” I wonder if this explains why some of the literacy activities we use are actually counter-productive.

Yes, students need help learning how to process text more effectively, so some practice and instruction in skills such inferencing, comprehension, speed, and vocabulary are valid instructional activities. Yes, our citizenry needs to understand the importance of certain authors, books, and ideas in the development of culture, so teachers of literature have an important role to play in transmitting a canonical body of artistic merit and helping students learn to interpret it.

But should we expect these reading and literary pedagogical approaches to move students toward a lifelong love of reading? They may be helpful in minimal, indirect ways, but I doubt that practice in inferencing or understanding the concept of tragic hero automatically entices a young person to find a book and while away an hour or so. That kind of reader is nurtured by a different kind of instruction. In fact, if direct reading and literary instruction are imposed in a fashion out of balance with other kinds of reading activities, they may be counter-productive as we seek to move students toward a lifelong love of reading.

If moving students toward a lifelong love of reading is a worthwhile goal, and I believe it is, we may need to modify our instructional approaches to include activities and practices that actually make that goal more likely to become reality. We cannot force anyone to learn. We cannot force anyone to love anything, including reading. We can, however, build cultures and use classroom practices that motivate students to find books they enjoy.

When students have the experience of enjoying a book, they will seek out other books. Over time I’ve seen that students will gradually seek more and more challenging books. At some point in that ascent, the ability to process text merges with the love of reading and leads to actual appreciation of literature. If schools shortchange any aspect of the groundwork by focusing too much on reading or literary pedagogy at the expense of experiences that nourish a love of reading, our students cannot be expected to develop that bookish inclination that so many of their English teachers enjoy.

So, what’s the appropriate balance of reading instruction, literary instruction, and pleasure reading opportunities in our classrooms? Your success (or horror) stories are welcome and appreciated. Thanks for reading.

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3 Responses to Learning Reading or Loving Reading?

  1. Karen LaBonte says:

    I love the way you phrase your question about the balance we want to achieve in the three pedagogical areas. I’ve been reading Loise Rosenblatt and she’s almost persuaded me that a little literary instruction isn’t bad. I still think that literary analysis is a surefire way to kill reading.

  2. Clix says:

    Karen, maybe it depends what you mean by literary analysis and how you teach it. Students engage in literary analysis ALL THE TIME without really thinking about it – I mean, have you heard the diatribes when a popular book gets a movie treatment?

    I tend to define literary analysis as “thinking about the choices that authors make.” And I don’t see how that is going to kill reading. Can you elaborate?

  3. Thanks, Gary. What you said rang so true with what I’ve seen in the classroom. I believe (a la Mary Leonhart of “Parents Who Love Reading, Kids Who Don’t” and “Keeping Kids Reading”) that a love of reading is the most important thing we can give to kids. My classroom is therefore a pleasure-reading zone. I don’t snag them all, but year after year kids tell me they discover or re-discover reading love in my room. I don’t grade their reading, but I give them daily time to read and–most importantly–funnel them books they’ll love. (I do have librarian blood.) Right book in the right hands–FROM the right hands. I do try to move them toward learning to select their own books by the end of the year, but I’m not shy about handpicking sure-fire winners to get their momentum going at the beginning of the year. I also strive to know what each student is reading and informally monitor their progress. Ask about it. If they’re slogging, get a different book. “Too many good books out there to waste your time reading one you don’t like.”

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