Monday, July 6, 2009

How To Turn Kids Off Reading: Start With School

When my son’s school sent out the required summer reading list, I took a look and (privately) groaned. So did my 13-year-old son (loudly). Not a good sign.

This summer my reluctant-reader son will be sitting down with a Canadian YA novel that is completely issue-driven. Shattered by Eric Walters is contemporary, meaningful, and relevant. It’s a school book, assigned as required summer reading by a teacher who probably wants to get the jump on the Holocaust unit the students will be studying in Grade Eight.

I read it, because I wanted to, and my son will also read the book, of course. He might even find things in it that resonate. But he won’t enjoy the reading experience, and that’s a shame. (How do I know this? His Grade Seven novel study was The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis, another contemporary, meaningful and relevant novel about real issues. “Mom,” reported my beleaguered son, “it was dreadful.”)

There are so many entertaining and significant books out there (the novels of Arthur Slade and Kenneth Oppel come to mind), but a shadow continues to loom over classrooms. Ouch! That’s the sound of kids being hit over the head with a curriculum full of “meaningful” issue-driven books.

And if you listen closely, you can also hear the sound of reluctant readers running hard in the other direction—away from the pleasures of reading.


  1. Jean - this so true. Why force "relevant, issue-driven" books on kids, especially boys who tend to not "get it" and whose minds just can't process these sorts of issues. These are boys! They want action. They want fun and drama. Nathan's best reading experiences occurred with K Opel's Shade books (I love them too) and Harry Potter - which he still re-reads. He also liked the Tokien books but not until a little later.

  2. As an English teacher, I am afraid I will live up to Jean's assumption here...while I do believe that we should nurture the strengths that already lie within our pupils, I think it is a disservice to ONLY do so. Yes, Anonymous, boys want action, and fun, and drama. But my concern is that if we feed them a steady diet of what they know and love, or educate them using tools that do so, where are the challenges through which to grow? Also, and more worrisome, we risk producing members of society who are reluctant to even attempt to grasp concepts outside their 'comfort' zone. Instead of trying to find themselves in a novel, as all fiction teaches us about the human condition, perhaps pupils could be more engaged if they try to find the how the novel fits within their own lives and experiences. When I've taught Alan Stratton's Chanda's Secrets, bringing home the issue of HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa was the key to its effective experience.
    I think we also need to remember that the Craig Kielburgers of society need to be remembered in our curricular plans, too; for every pupil that does not immediately engage with an issue-driven plot, there is, reasonably, one who does.
    As a drama instructor, devising for the individuals in a group is a challenging task. Girls traditionally like to get on the stage and 'talk' out a scene; boys like to get up and fight it out. So, my schemes of work include all sorts of exercises and scenes to challenge everyone in the group. Otherwise, what would be the academic and personal objective in just reinforcing strength after strength?
    Just some thoughts...thanks for sharing, Jean.

  3. I appreciate any efforts to draw attention to reading, and attract reluctant readers to it.

    That's because I grew up as a reluctant reader, in spite of the fact that my father published over 70 books. Now I write action-adventures & mysteries, especially for tween boys, that avid boy readers and girls enjoy just as much.

    My blog, Books for Boys recently reached # 1 on Google.

    Keep up your good work concerning reading.

    Max Elliot Anderson