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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

How Do You Make Kids Love Reading?

October 18, 2017

How do you make kids love reading?

Before I answer, let’s consider something similar.

Several years ago, I invited Bertram Bruce to speak to our graduate students.

Chip is a thoughtful, soft-spoken, Fulbright scholar at Urbana-Champaign who has spent a lot of time considering the role of technology in learning, and he has done some cool studies on reading and community inquiry.

While we were visiting, I asked him a question that was then nagging our Literacy faculty: How could we teach the teachers enrolled in our Master’s program to teach technology in their classrooms? Teacher preparation standards were starting to require that kind of thing and let’s face it, digital technology was (and is) intruding more and more into our lives (reading and otherwise).

I figured he was going to tell me to add a course to our program, a course that would teach how to distinguish a bit from a byte, how to select instructional software, how to write code, and other technology skills. Maybe he’d suggest that our teachers militate for classroom tech centers.

But as I said, Chip is a thoughtful man. He knows his stuff and he knew what it would really take to get teachers to commit to technology.

He said, “Start using technology in your program.” In other words, post readings online, send assignments by email, hold virtual office hours, and so on.

Most people don’t use technology because they love technology. They use it because it makes their lives easier or better in some way.

For me, the initial benefits from this kind of technology were professional. Electronics gave me ways of writing papers and analyzing data that reduced my work time and allowed me more time with my own kids. (Of course, then email took much of that back, but it also provided me with a wider and closer network of colleagues.)

After that, I started doing family budgets and figuring our taxes on a computer. And, now I find it hard to shop without one (thanks, Amazon!).

I vividly remember colleagues  — those who were gaudy in their pride of never having used a computer. Well, when their kids headed off to college, the dam broke. It was amazing how quickly these Luddites immigrated to digital. Staying in touch with college kids is a huge technology motivator for my generation.

Recently, I started thinking about Chip’s technology advice and its germaneness to reading. Teachers often tell me that their goal is to make kids love reading or to turn students into lifelong readers. We can argue about whether those are thoughtful educational goals some other day (don’t get me going), but the question is how would you accomplish these goals?

The solutions that I see seem pretty far from Dr. Bruce’s well-earned insights.

These teachers tell me that they make kids love reading by requiring them to read on their own for certain amounts of time. Or by dumping required readings; choice is big. Or by paying the kids off with free pizzas or rooftop principals.

Chip never said that we should require that our teachers log onto computers for 20-minutes a day. He didn’t tell us to inundate the classrooms with technology. He didn’t tell us to reduce instruction to give our students free technology time. He didn’t tell us to avoid websites that we thought would be most beneficial to our students so that they’d have sufficient Angry Birds time.  

No, his notion of getting people into technology was to make technology serve real purposes in people’s lives.

Hmmm … could that really work in reading?

That made me think about some other thoughtful friends of mine, Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey. Along with all the other things they do, they are Teacher Leaders at the Health Sciences High and Middle College, a charter high school in San Diego.

At their school, the curriculum is shaped by big ideas … questions — real questions that students want to answer. Each year, the kids nominate questions, and then there is an election to select the questions that will shape the curriculum. This year’s cohort is exploring:

  • What makes you unique?
  • Who can we trust?
  • What is love?
  • What is the difference between surviving and living?

To answer these successfully, teachers will have to align their curriculum in ways that can support the kids’ investigations, and a lot of reading is likely to be needed, of course; reading that isn’t being done because teachers are saying, “Read! I want you to like this,” but because reading can help solve real problems of intellectual curiosity in these kids’ lives and because reading allows them to be part of the group and to contribute to its success.

[In my own reading life, I’ve gotten interested lately in the big intellectual ideas of the Twentieth Century, and how they shape our lives. Cyndie decided she wanted to ride along with me on this journey. We just finished Spengler’s lugubrious Decline of the West (both volumes) and now are immersed in the economic formulations of Lord John Maynard Keynes. It takes all kinds. But we’re reading these — not to read — but because we want to know something, and reading them together is like a continuing date night.]

If you want kids to love reading, then make reading important in your students’ lives.

Instead of providing free reading time during the school day, pose academic and social problems for the kids to solve (or, better, let them pose their own); problems that reading can help address.

The idea that loving reading means reading particular kinds of texts in a particular fashion, like sitting with a book for 20 minutes of continual reading is a pretty narrow vision of love anyway.  

As a father and now grandfather, I’m able to take the long view.

My daughters both liked reading. The oldest would have rather read than breathed, and the younger liked reading, too — though not as much as she enjoyed talking to friends, burning CDs, talking to friends, swimming, talking to friends, building things, and so on.

Now they have their own careers and families. Reading waxes and wanes in their lives based on their current needs. My oldest, the inveterate reader — the Accelerated Reader record holder, doesn’t read so much these days, at least not for pleasure. She is addressing the medical needs of a family member now, and novels and free reading time aren’t the meat she seeks.

Her love of reading looks much more like the environments that Chip, Doug, and Nancy emphasize.

Of course, reading can help in lots of different ways: It can be a source of entertainment or emotional escape. It can provide spiritual fulfillment and insights about how to live one’s life. Reading has something to do with forming an identity, too. But kids are more likely to discover reading while tackling those needs than they are to discover the relevance of reading to those needs during free reading time.     

Instead of trying to make kids love reading, why not make reading important in their daily lives, and then trust that reading will be loved in the only way that really matters — they’ll use it when it meets their needs. 

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"To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark." — Victor Hugo, Les Miserables