How to Stop Fake Reading? Give Teens Choice as Well as the Classics

How to balance both.

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How to Stop Fake Reading in the High School Classroom

Have you tried getting students to fall in love with a big white whale or a little girl named Scout? I have. And then I bumped up against checked-out, disinterested readers.

Many teens openly admit to disliking the assigned reading in English class. And those who don’t confess are often expertly tucking cell phones in their copies of The Scarlet Letter, or skimming the SparkNotes of Great Expectations.

“Reading Snapchat but not Shakespeare deprives your soul!” we plead, but we must do more.

Fake reading is rampant.

It’s damaging our students and future generations. Our teens face hundreds of pages of assigned reading each week in college. The intense reading workload for non-readers may greatly contribute to the nearly 50% drop out rate in college. Considering college loans average over 30k per student, and that almost any professional job requires a college degree, we must help our teens become real readers with robust stamina. (Get tips on how to deal with fake reading from this Facebook Live event.)

One essential component to getting teens reading is choice.

Teens crave autonomy. They want characters, topics, themes, and settings they know and care about. They want books they understand so they feel good at reading and then want to read again and again. The road to real reading is built on choice.

But choice can’t be the whole solution.

What about Brontë and Bradbury? Homer and Hemingway? Morrison and Milton? Wiesel and Wordsworth? Our students deserve these texts, too.

Nurturing teens’ reading identity and stamina with choice is key. But so is exposing them to the complex texts English teachers know and love.

Every student, not just the AP student, is owed knowledge of the texts that have stood the test of time.

They all deserve an appreciation for authors who craft rich and compelling works that are relevant today, and for texts whose themes and narratives shape so many of today’s stories in song, film, and media. How can we have both? Is having choice reading and classic class novels like having our cake and eating it too?

Rest assured, it can be done. Not only can we have both; we need both.

How does this work in a classroom?

Introduce students to skills using key excerpts of the class novel. Then ask them to apply those skills to books of their choice.

For example, an eighth grade teacher recently used an excerpt from The Outsiders to look at underlying conflicts within a novel. She spent a few minutes showing students her thinking and what she noticed as she read. Then, students went into their own novels and made sure to track not just the main, plot-driven conflict, but multiple conflicts. And everyone did so!

An eleventh grade teacher looked at the use of repeated imagery of the prison door and rosebush in The Scarlet Letter, showing students how he notices symbolism and what those repeated images stand for in the larger context of the novel. Readers turned to their own novels, paying attention to repeated images and symbolism. This transfer of a reading skill not only allowed students to take on the important work of readers, but it also let the teacher to see if students “got it.”

In both classes, there is no fake reading. Pages turn, students have eyes on print, and the teacher is able to quietly help individuals and small groups with their work. No phones, no fake reading, no exhausted teacher.

Teachers around the country have proven it works.

Here is what they’ve found:

  1. Engaged readers. Not just a select few, but all. No more fake reading or cell phones in books. Students identify as readers and boost reading stamina, all on their own.
  2. Transfer. Now there’s concrete proof that students “got it.” Students watch the teacher trace the impact of minor characters on theme in Of Mice and Men. Then students do that same analysis in Insurgent or To Set a Watchman. Teachers clearly see who understands and can apply that skill, and who needs support.
  3. Students read the classics by choice. Sure enough, when the classics aren’t required reading, many teachers are finding students coming to those complex texts all on their own. And loving them.
  4. Teachers rediscover the joy in teaching. They’re getting to know their students through books, and students are forming communities of readers.

What can you try tomorrow to help end fake reading?

Try creating reading plans with your students, doing a book buzz (and here) on their phones, getting to theme by having them pull lines they love from books they love, or using these prompts so students apply high-level skills to texts of their choice, ie., books they want to and can read.

For a sample unit using a middle school level novel, click here. For high school units, nonfiction units, and planning templates, check out No More Fake Reading.