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.