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The following are thoughts inspired by William J. Broz's May 2011 English Journal article titled "Not Reading: The 800-Pound Mockingbird in the Room." In the article, Broz discusses how many of our students choose not to read assigned texts and, instead, use the strategy of "not reading." He offers ideas about how we actually encourage this strategy, and he provides tips for what we can do to discourage it.
William J. Broz makes a bold statement when he writes that “students who can read and do not have done nothing important enough to deserve passing grades in our classes” (16). I’m sure that some may view this assertion (and maybe others) as harsh. But isn’t it the truth? If students are not reading and responding to texts, then what are they doing? Obviously we are working on other skills in our classrooms separately from those which are connected with core and choice texts, but reading is still at the heart of an English Language Arts classroom. I fear that some (many?) teachers have come to accept “not reading” as just the way things are. I’ve heard many teachers say that their students just don’t read, but I worry that we are accepting and encouraging this habit of “not reading.” I worry that we’re lowering our expectations. I believe that we need to “behave in class as if [we] expect [students] to be reading the books” (19). As Broz says, “it is what we do as classroom teachers as we set up the invitation to read that suggests to students and later confirms for them that not reading will be a successful strategy” (16). If we truly believe that reading is essential, we need to plan lessons and activities accordingly. Too many students don’t see reading assignments as having the same weight or value as work they do for other classes. When I’ve asked students why they did not complete a reading assignment, the most common response is that they had other work to do. “So you did the work for your other classes?” I ask them. “I had to” is the common response. If students don’t have to do the reading for our classes, if they don’t see the importance of assigned readings, there’s a problem.
I feel that most of my students have come to realize that not reading is not a viable option. I’m not terribly naïve, though—I’m sure that there are some students who are managing to squeak by here and there without reading. But I have really worked (and continue to work!) to be sure that reading assignments have a purpose and shape the focus of our class discussions and activities. I agree with Broz when he says that “in teaching literature we are teaching reading and interpretative processes, not right answers about a particular book” (16). I have my students do different reading response activities for different works. One of my favorites (which also happens to be a student favorite, too) is a response assignment I call “Talking Points." Talking Points are very similar to Broz’s reader response journals. For each reading assignment, students must have at least four or five talking points. I typically collect the talking points each class they are due. The assignment provides a great way for me to see where students are in terms of their understanding and analysis of the text as we’re reading. I’m able to read and respond to short “snippets” of analysis and gauge student understanding and progress without reading a whole essay. I hardly ever use reading guides—never with IB and very rarely with regular level classes. My regular level classes have completed Talking Points, too. I want to see what students bring to the text, not simply that they can identify certain techniques or plot points that I’ve told them to look for. Can students “not read” and get by on these Talking Points and reader response journal activities? Sure, but it’s harder. And it usually become apparent pretty quickly when students are not reading.
Along with banishing reading guides, I’ve also done away with the typical reading quiz. Thanks to the inspiration of an amazing colleague, I now do what we call “impromptu writes.” Instead of a reading quiz, I’ll pose a question or present a topic for discussion, and students have fifteen to twenty minutes to compose a response based on and supported by their reading. Sometimes the response is open book, and sometimes it’s not. Here’s an impromptu-write prompt my students responded to after reading The Woman Warrior: “Describe the primary struggle Kingston had to overcome, and explain whether or not she was successful.” Impromptu write questions at the end of our study of Chronicle of a Death Foretold included “Which character deserves the most sympathy from the reader and why?” and “Who is to blame for Santiago’s death? Explain” Sometimes I’ll give students a key passage to respond to for an impromptu write. (I use a different prompt for each class.) These writings accomplish a number of things. Once again, I’m able to read a shorter piece of writing and gauge where my students are in terms of understanding and analysis. They provide yet another writing experience in the classroom, and we work on skills such as structuring a response and integrating support with these impromptu writes. Students can’t BS these responses. They might try, but they soon learn that I would much rather they be honest….and do the reading.