When We Talk about Reading

Person reading 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 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 I don’t assign every section 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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