Blaming readers is in vogue these days. Boys dont read. Reluctant readers resist reading. Struggling readers give up because the task is just too hard for them. When we label readers in these ways, are we perhaps communicating our own frustration more than the actual situations?
Consider what happens on NEAs Read Across America Day (official site - ReadWriteThink Calendar Entry). Read Across America Day, celebrated on March 3, 2008, celebrates reading and encourages every person, young and old, to read on the March 3rd and every day of the year. As the sites FAQ explains
In cities and towns across the nation, teachers, teenagers, librarians, politicians, actors, athletes, parents, grandparents, and others develop NEAs Read Across America activities to bring reading excitement to children of all ages. Governors, mayors, and other elected officials recognize the role reading plays in their communities with proclamations and floor statements. Athletes and actors issue reading challenges to young readers. And teachers and principals seem to be more than happy to dye their hair green or be duct-taped to a wall if it boosts their students reading.With all this support and encouragement, why do we still have readers who dont or wont read regularly? What makes an event like Read Across America Day different? Why can it be difficult for all students to celebrate reading every day?
It has a lot to do with how we treat readers. The January 2008 English Journal article “Speaking My Mind: Dont Blame the Boys: Were Giving Them Girly Books” by Kevin R. St. Jarre argues that “it may not be that girls naturally love to read more than boys do. It may be the reading lists”(15). The reading curriculum, according to the article, favors emotional and reflective readings (texts for girls) like Go Ask Alice and Speak over action and adventure (texts for boys) like the latest Tom Clancy novel. The article concludes that when “we allow students to select what they will read . . . we can encourage reading where there is currently none” (16).
In her recent NCTE webinar “When Kids Won't Read, What Teachers Can Do” (access to the archive is free), Teri Lesesne (blog, school page) explored how the covers on books appeal to different kinds of readers. Her presentation considered how the cover images on the books encouraged or discouraged readers to pick up the book and read. Naturally we have stereotypes about what makes a cover for boys or a cover for girls, and our thoughts may ignore things like readers gender identity and personal interests. The point still stands though: readers have strong preferences that guide their reading and lead them to engage with a text.
When reading centers on student choice, students are more likely to read. Events like Read Across America Day work because they highlight everything that is fun about reading. Readers are encouraged to share and read the texts they love. If every day in the classroom were like Read Across America Day, my hunch is that reading would improve. But in a world of compulsory readings and curriculums decided by textbook publishers, teachers face many challenges. What seems like the most obvious challenge however, readers themselves, is probably the least of our worries. We need to stop blaming the readers and let students help us find“the right book for the right reader at the right time,” as Teri Lesesne says. Maybe then classrooms will be filled with celebrating readers every day—and the reluctant and struggling readers will be a thing of the past.