All our Kids Can Learn to Read!

Ideas for Teaching Reading to Hesitant High School Students

By David Levine

By the time they reach seventh grade, many students dislike reading, read poorly, and do not have the comprehension and writing skills they need to do well in school. As English and reading teachers, we need to develop styles of teaching and instructional strategies which will help our students become confident and effective readers. After reviewing some research and talking with other teachers I compiled the following ideas:

1) Promote reading as a “real world” activity which is intrinsically worthwhile

Encourage students to read paperback books, magazines, billboards, cereal boxes, matchbook covers, and anything else their eyes come in contact with. Allow students who can’t stay away from the morning sports section to read about last night’s game — and then get them to write an article about it. Try to convince students that it makes sense to pick up and read a book as spontaneously as they strike up a conversation.

Helping students find good books with serious themes doesn’t mean we have to impose our own taste on them. We need to strike a balance between presenting students with good literature and allowing them the freedom to choose books that appeal to them, not necessarily to us. Use. the works of excellent writers as material for your classroom instruction, but for their recreational reading let students choose among the good, the bad, and the ugly. Don’t be embarrassed to have a classroom library in which James Baldwin sits next to James Bond, or Maya Angelou rubs shoulders with Jaqueline Susann. Many discriminating readers developed their taste by wading through a youthful diet of trashy novels with an increasing appetite for good books.

If your school does not have a silent reading program, see if you can get one started. School-wide silent reading works well if it is done often and at a set time, if students can choose what to read from a wealth of varied and appropriate material, and if everyone in the school (including administrators, custodians, and secretaries) participates. Silent reading can also be instituted in a single classroom. To be effective, silent reading should take- place at least three times a week for.fifteen to twenty minutes.

2) Offer students many ways to respond to books

Some students view writing a traditional full length book report as so tedious and intimidating that the reports can actually act as disincentives to reading whole books. Such students can be offered the option of writing a very short summary of the book, supplemented by an oral report. Another approach is to have them write a very brief reaction to an issue raised in the book. For example, students might give their opinion of a character’s actions or describe what they might do in a similar situation. Another idea is to introduce a book by having students fill out an opinion survey on controversial issues they will encounter as they read it. Then, after reading the book, they can fill out the opinion survey as if they were the author being prepared to defend their choices with examples from the book. Students who have great difficulty writing can answer a set of questions tailored to their book. By responding to these questions with whole sentences they can construct a book report.

3) Link reading instruction to writing and speaking

Students should come to see reading as much more than the passive ingestion of someone else’s ideas. Reading should be linked to class discussions, dramatic presentations, and students’ own writing. Students should be encouraged to read, listen to, and reflect upon each other’s writing. They can listen to each other’s work in progress and offer suggestions. Editing skills can be taught through the process of producing class anthologies. Short reading selections can be used to spark classroom debates and panel discussions. Students can tape a discussion of a book, unencumbered by outside guidance, for the teacher to listen to. A class could write a collection of short book reviews which is then kept in the school library as a reading guide for other students.

4) Teach vocabulary in context

It is best to teach words that students encounter as they read a text which is meaningful to them. Students can draw from a text their own list of vocabulary words to be tested on. Students who are far below their grade level in reading skills can be asked to write a story which includes vocabulary words from a selection read in class.

Vocabulary instruction can be a good complement to reading if it is based on the discussion of highly charged and provocative words. For instance, a reading or writing unit which deals with some aspect of the adolescent struggle for maturity can be prefaced by a discussion of such words as alienation, independence, self-reliance, ambivalence, commitment, and identity. A unit on South Africa could include such vocabulary words as apartheid, segregation, integration. oppression, discrimination. Liberation, sanctions, boycott, and non-violent resistance.

5) Use reading comprehension workbooks sparingly

These workbooks have the advantage of presenting specific skill activities at a variety of levels of difficulty, but they also have distinct drawbacks. They carry on the tradition evident in elementary basals of fragmenting the holistic acts of reading and writing into sub-skills which are monotonous to practice and are nearly irrelevant to the kind of reading and writing that students experience in content area classes or outside of school. By the time they are fourteen years old, many students cringe at the sight of comprehension or vocabulary workbooks.

6) Put success within the grasp of your students

The process of searching for answers should overshadow the obsession with getting a high test score. Consider de-emphasizing test results in determining class grades. Give credit to students who attempt work difficult for them. Make it possible for students to receive an “A” by completing a set number of assigned tasks. Allow students to work together on some assignments. Starting the school year with ungraded assignments and assignments on which all can experience success can give students confidence to tackle more challenging work. Thus a course can become more rigorous as it proceeds.

There is of course no magic mix of techniques which guarantees success for poor readers. We all find (or have found) our own idiosyncratic paths to literacy. Hesitant and unskilled readers need teachers who combine patience with careful observation and experimentation. Our students need a multitude of reading experiences grounded in this one constant: a classroom in which they have been allowed to confirm their own sense of self-worth and capacity to learn.

David Levine teaches English and reading at Shalom High School in Milwaukee. The author would like to thank Cynthia Ellwood, Ron Meier, and Terry Ryan Meier for their contributions to this article.