What Does It Mean to Read a Book?

A perennial complaint of the high school English teacher is this:

My students just won’t read the books.

Much has been written on this subject. Sometimes we say that students need more choice; they just don’t want to read the books we assign. Sometimes we say that the texts are not appropriate for their reading level.  Sometimes we say we should hold students more accountable. Sometimes we say students need more time to read in class.

I sympathize and agree with many of these points.

However, on my campaign to make sure as much reading as possible happens in my classroom, I have come to realize that I first have to ask this basic question:

What do we mean when we say “read the book”?

Do I mean that my eyes had a meaningful encounter with every word? What about those parts I skimmed because I was rushing to finish before class? What about those parts I skimmed because they made me uncomfortable or because I lost interest? If I do that, does that mean I didn’t read the book?

What if I skip some chapters and come back to them later? What if I don’t come back to them?  Did I read the book?

What if I listen to the audiobook? Did I read the book?

What if I brush my eyeballs over every word but I have no idea what I just read? Did I read the book?

What if I look at every page without comprehension but then understand much better when I sit in class and listen to a teacher/professor/colleague/able peer explain the passages? Did I read the book?

What if, as I’m doing right now with my students with Dante’s Inferno, I just teach excerpts from a book? Does that mean that my students aren’t really reading the book?

How much of the book, in other words, has be to read before I can say that I read the book?

Just like if I’m watching a movie, do I say that I didn’t see the movie if I had to leave for a few minutes and go to the bathroom or heat up my tea? What percentage of the movie do I have to watch in order to say that I’ve “seen” the movie?

Before we can start the conversation about how to make sure that students read more of the work we’re assigning, I think we need to ask this question.

Before we say that our students aren’t reading, I want to know what we mean by that.  What is good enough? What does “reading a book” mean?

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  1. This is a good question, and one I often have to answer for myself when I see those book quizzes: ‘how many of the following classics have you read!?’ or ‘the BBC says you’ve only read 10 of these!’ Many times, I find there are several titles I can’t check because I only read half the book, but perhaps I should? I don’t expect to go back and finish them–in a way, they’ve been checked off my list of books to read.

    So, I suppose the question we’re asking here is ‘what is the purpose of reading said book?’ and I think there needs to be a fun flow chart to diagram this.


    1. Yes! I always feel the same way when I take those quizzes. I also like thinking about the idea of purpose. How much do you need to read to fulfill your purpose for reading?


  2. Frank Smith in “Reading Without Nonsense” offers some surprising insights about the amount of visual information required for “reading”, with the ironic but brilliant conclusion that “less is more” and fluent reading makes heavy use of non-visual information already “in the reader’s head”.


    1. Thanks for that–I just added that book to my wish list. I’m looking for any resources that discuss what exactly reading is, so thanks for the recommendation!


      1. My discovery of “Reading Without Nonsense” was pure serendipity: A copy was in a $0.25 “junk” pile at a used bookstore. Best quarter I ever spent!


      1. For my first through six grade students I ask them to see if they have any personal connection to the book. We brainstorm ideas for what that could look like. Does a character remind them of someone they know, did something similar happen to them, is a character interested in something that they like too, etc.

        I find that this helps them actively engage with a book, rather than just look at the words. It also leads to better discussions. It helps create connections among different students and myself as well due to shared experiences or interests.


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