How to Get Teens to Read
I grew up in the library. When I was a kid, my mom would constantly take me to our public library. We would always exit with colorful children’s books spilling out of our arms. As a teen, my mother worked across the street from the library, so I would spend my summer vacations basking in books. I found the quietest spots for reading, the public computers that were almost never taken, and knew the names of the nicest librarians. My first date was at a library hosted chess tournament, my high school friends and I would regularly gather in the library’s cafe, and I began volunteering for the library’s used bookstore at the age of sixteen. The library has always held a special place in my heart. It was my second home.
I was lucky to be surrounded by books as I grew up. Because of that, it makes a lot of sense that reading is a huge part of my life. I know the magic that can happen when you open a book, and I want to share that same experience with my students. While I can’t ensure that my students will have as much time in a library as I did, I can show them the joy of being a reader.
As teachers, we have to be our students’ reading allies. We must do whatever we can to ensure that students are given the chance to become avid readers. After all, studies show that readers are smarter and nicer than non-readers. Beyond that, recreational reading is a life altering activity of self-improvement and entertainment. What other activity can take you all across the world, into mystical dimensions, or down the street with a few turns of the page?
I once spoke to a high school English teacher who lamented, “If they don’t like to read by this age, they never will.” I disagree. We have plenty of time to make readers out of secondary students. We just need to make it a priority—all of us. This endeavor shouldn’t be limited to English teachers. All teachers can contribute to the pursuit of showing their students the power of reading. Here are a few tips on how you can do that in your own classroom, regardless of your subject area:
Be a Good Example
At the National Council of Teachers of English Convention in St. Louis, I listened to Carol Jago speak. I didn’t know who Carol Jago was at the time (because I regularly fail at being an informed English teacher), but now I know who she is and I love her. She is my role model. She is spunky and fierce and amazing. And at the convention she looked her audience of teachers in the eye and reminded us of one true fact: We need to read.
We have to. There are no excuses. You’re busy, yes, but so is everyone else. Your students are busy, too. You have to make time for reading, because through reading you’ll find time for yourself. You’ll find time for empathy and understanding, time for learning and passion. There are no if’s, and’s, or but’s. You need to pick up a book and read.
In that vein, here are some books I recommend you get started on immediately:
- The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
- All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
- Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins
- American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
- Feed by M.T. Anderson
- Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
- The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
- Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
- Planet for Rent by Yoss
- Red Rising by Pierce Brown
Provide Constant Recommendations for Books
If you think I’m bragging when I tell you I met Kelly Gallagher (yes, THE Kelly Gallagher) at the 2017 NCTE Convention, you are absolutely right. Spoiler: This entire blog post is a poorly veiled excuse for me to name drop every magnificent person I met at that amazing conference. When I met Kelly— we’re on a first name basis now—he signed my copy of his book Readicide.
If you haven’t read Readicide, you should. It’s short and realistic. I picked it up when I was in college. Amidst the sea of theory and pedagogical texts, this was the first book that had real-world classroom ideas. And the most impactful one?
Tell kids about the books you have recently read.
It seems painfully obvious. And yet, I had to seriously ask myself when the last time I had shared a book I was reading with my kids. Think about it. When have you stopped everything to gush about an awesome novel? If it’s recently, high-fives all around. You should be proud.
I get so caught up in the lesson plan, staying on task with my calendar, and moving forward in the unit that sometimes I forget to let kids know how excited I am about reading. There’s a small voice in my head whispers, “That’s a waste of time!” or “It’s not really teaching.” If you have that voice too, I would suggest you squash it. Soundly. Encouraging reading by recommending books is definitely teaching. Honestly, if the only thing a student took from my classroom was a love of reading, I would be pleased as punch.
Kelly also had an additional mind blowing thought to this concept that I want to share with you:
Tell kids about the books you have recently read AND let them know how many copies are available in the school library.
This man is phenomenal. I genuinely hadn’t thought of doing that. If you have, you're also phenomenal. Good job.
Put Books In Their Way
Bookshelves are efficient for storing books, not reading them. How many of your non-reading students have ever willingly approached your classroom bookshelf? Asked to go to the library? I would bet all of my Lularoe budget that the answer is zero. When books are tucked away nicely in the corner, they’re easier to ignore. We need to rebel against that idea. Use some civil disobedience. That’s right. Get ready.
Put the books on the table.
BOOM! I could hear your mind exploding all the way over here. Pick some good reads that you personally have liked, and lay those suckers out. Prop them on the ledge of your whiteboard. Toss them to kids mid-lesson. Get them curious about books, and then put them in their hands.
Leave Reading Students Alone
When you read a good book, you develop a relationship with that book. You have mental conversations with it. You take with you wherever you go. You learn to love some of it, while despising other parts of it. That connection, between a good book and a reader, is sacred.
But oftentimes, we teachers destroy it.
We poke and prod at students with comprehension questions, study guides, and endless mini-lessons. What symbols do you see in this novel? Who is a dynamic or static character? What is the author’s purpose with this particular passage? Are the blue curtains meaningful? Explain in 20 sentences or more.
We badger students constantly about what they have read immediately after they have read it. I’m not advocating that we stop teaching students whilst reading novels. I’m not even advocating that we stop asking the questions I’ve listed above or trash all of the study guides. But I do think we need to back off, let kids write reflectively on their own reading experiences, and have them lead more of the conversation. Let’s do our best as teachers to not pick a book to death.
Have a Classroom Library
Classroom libraries may seem like a waste of time and money. Honestly, if you’re a new teacher, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Hit up a few garage sales or book sales when time allows. Let your stockpile of used books accumulate. Patiently await the teacher who retires and leaves behind a bookcase. Definitely don’t rush the process and certainly don’t blow your paycheck on it.
But if you can, have a classroom library. A place where students can stare when they aren’t listening to your lecture or peruse when they are done with their work. It’s a marvelous lesson tool when you’re trying to demonstrate some sort of text element. There is something impactful about pulling a book off a shelf and showing kids exactly what you are talking about in the classroom appearing in ink on a page.
In some ways, your classroom library can be a statement. The books you choose to showcase to your students are meaningful. It’s a good idea to have read most, or all, of them so you can talk to any student who asks to borrow something. As a new teacher myself, I am guilty of not knowing a sizable amount of the books in my own classroom library, but I’m working my way through them slowly.
Sustained Silent Reading
My high school AP Biology teacher gave us one fifty minute class period a week to read silently. There was a required novel for the semester (The Hot Zone, if I remember correctly), but after you finished that book, you could read anything you chose as long as you read and were quiet about it.
If an AP Bio teacher can swing fifty minutes of sustained silent reading time once a week and still have her average AP score be 4.2 (yeah, she was amazing), so can you. So can I. Give your students time to read and they will. You are not ‘killing time’ when you have kids pull out a book. You are teaching a love of reading and that is worthwhile.
No ‘Free’ Time in Class
This tip is not only a good idea to get kids more involved in reading, it is a classroom management life saver. When kids are done with their work, stop letting them do other homework. Don’t send them into the hallway or give them a pass to talk to another teacher.
Have them read.
Each semester, set a goal for students to read a certain number of books. It doesn’t have to be a high number. For my class’ Fall Reading Workshop, their number was a grand total of ‘one.’ Take your classes to the library, have them pick something out. And then have them read it whenever they have free time in your classroom.
At any moment when someone finishes their work, their book should be out. When they are waiting on classmates to finish an assessment, their book is out. When you are struggling with technology and need ten minutes until the IT person helps you reconnect your speaker system, their book is out.
Create a culture of reading in your classroom. The absolute worst case scenario is that a student pulls out their book and stares at it aimlessly for a while and that’s a pretty ideal worst case scenario. The best case scenario is when that same kid actually finds themselves sucked into a story. We have known for quite some time that education equates strongly to power. But it seems like we forget the power that comes from reading. We sell ourselves and our students short when we don’t give reading the appropriate class time and appreciation. Using these tips above, and any other great ideas you have, go forth and create excited readers. I wish you the best of luck because, let's be honest, you'll need some of that, too.