On more than one occasion, I’ve witnessed Stephenie Meyer’sTwilight series lead a struggling reader into proficiency. The year the series became popular, it received a lot of criticism for being poorly written, but I couldn’t get my hands on enough copies. My students begged me to stay in for lunch so they could eat in my room and read. It was a big deal, this book, and it was a big deal that my students wanted to read. Many of these middle and high schoolers struggled with reading. For them, it was painful. I saw no other choice. I grabbed a book. Read with them at lunch. Ordered more copies. We started a Twilight book club, and more and more kids (and teachers) picked up the books. Six months after starting Twilight, one girl, a reader now, fiercely handed me her copy, smile wide, “I finished. I did it! Where’s the next one?” She finished the series by the end of the year. Each book took her less time despite their volume growing. Her reading level went up substantially. Once again it was confirmed, a good book grows a reader.
I could tell the same story about Harry Potter, Hatchet, Monster, Tears of a Tiger, insert young adult literature title here. And I could tell you about the countless times these books were questioned. I was questioned. Did I really think young adult literature was good enough to teach, to let students read in school? Fluff or pleasure reading maybe, but what about the cannon, what about the classics?
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We know censorship peaks its ugly head in the door when books are burned and banned, but it also enters the room when books are not deemed worthy or “good enough” to read.
When I was questioned, I’d go back to why I was teaching. My goal was to get kids reading and understanding what they read. My goal was to help them learn and enjoy learning. To do that, I needed books that engaged my students. Books they connected to and wanted to read.
Yes, these were exactly the books that belonged in my classroom, and they are the books that now belong in my home.
When I taught ninth grade English, I was required to teach Romeo and Juliet (the text) to a room full of freshman who struggled to understand what they were reading and in some cases decode. Not only that, their lives were hard and they could have cared less about two long ago rich kids who spoke in a language they didn’t understand. It was a waste of our time, over and over again, a waste of time.
Then I found Sharon Drapers, Romiette and Julio. An updated version of the classic, I knew my students would be able to connect to Draper’s version. Sharon Draper’s books grow readers. They did everytime I used them in my classroom. My students asked if we could read the minute they walked into the room. They picked up her other books and read them independently. More than once, a student told me they didn’t know they loved to read. Afterwards, when we watched Romeo and Juliet (how Shakespeare was meant to be experienced) they understood why Shakespeare’s language, plot, and themes are universal or as my colleagues liked to say “stand the test of time.” Our modified unit met my goal. They engaged, practiced reading, learned, and enjoyed the book. Had we’d read the original text, I’m confident that wouldn’t be the case.
Allowing choice and reading high-interest books helps struggling readers, but these strategies also help reluctant and proficient readers. Because here’s the thing, a reader is someone who READS. Many kids, regardless of ability, avoid reading. We, humans, do that. We avoid things that don’t bring us joy. If we want our children to become life-long readers and build the skills needed to transition into the types of reading they’ll need for the future, we have to encourage interest and enjoyment.
The child who is ingesting Mangas, the same book over and over, or only wants to read sci-fi or love stories is reading! We have to let them and encourage them.
How do we Encourage our children to read
Ask questions about the book they’re reading and show genuine interest
Read the books they love and have real conversations
Help them find other books by the same author or in the same genre
Put aside bias, critique, the want to put something more “worthy” in their hands.
Suggest books you loved at their age and be okay if it’s not something they want to read or enjoy
Take Judy Blume’s advice- “Let children read whatever they want and then talk about it with them. If parents and kids can talk together, we won’t have as much censorship because we won’t have as much fear.”
Help kids find a just right book
Help kids take on the challenge of understanding what they’re reading when it’s hard
Fill our homes and library bags with books our kids can connect with and love.
Despite best intentions, we can stifle our children’s reading potential and possibly their love of reading. We have to be careful not to separate reading into two categories- pleasure and academic. When this happens, pleasure reading usually takes a back seat. Kids can read the books they enjoy if and when there’s time.
Readers are also restricted when they can’t read a book because it’s not on their grade level, reading level, or not advanced enough. They’re limited when they can’t read a book that is not real literature, are told they are not old enough, or they are too old. And they are discouraged when they’re told a book is inappropriate, doesn’t have enough text, is too short, or too long. When we project what we think is a worthy read onto our kids, we can grow kids who don’t like to read.
Let children choose the books they read. Trust what is true. Readers are people who read. Someone can only become a better reader if they are reading.