Where the Love of Reading Goes to Die

High School.

Ask a high school kid if they like to read. They will look at you like you are nuts. Like to read? No one wants to admit to that.  I've written about this before but after Ruth's post last week, I want to add a few more thoughts.

I blithely posted on Ruth site that high school is where the love of reading goes to die, but that's not the entire truth.  It's a slow lingering death. It starts earlier than high school.

I talk to my high school kids (I know, what a concept). They are extraordinarily honest about teachers and classes and how they think things should be taught. We talk about reading.

They hate being told what to read and they hate analyzing everything to death.
They hate answering comprehension questions about every short story and novel they read.
They hate discussing in lit circles.
They understand the need to do some of these things with some things they read. They just don't want to do it for everything.

Sometimes, they tell me, they just want to read.

  • They want time to read the Hunger Games before the movie comes out.
  • They want time to read The Fault in Our Stars because everyone on Twitter is talking about how great it is.
  • They want time to read a book slowly and savor it. Not hurry up and finish so they can take the test.
  • They want time to read a book overnight because it is so good they can't put it down.

And why don't high school teachers give them time?

  • Some because they are trying to desperately get through an amazing amount of material because their class is a prerequisite for the next class. It seems frivolous to give a day "just to read".
  • Some because they are told what to teach and when to teach it. They don't want to be seen as a "troublemaker" and break the rules.
  • Some because state testing is cause for concern and they have to address those areas that students are low in.
  • Some because they have 160 students to see in a day and finding the right book for each and every one of them seems an impossible task.
  • Ditto on the reading conferences, book talks, etc.

I know this is pretty simplistic. I also know there are teachers at every level who

  • don't read 
  • who use the same materials over and over again because they don't want to have to bother to create something new
  • who haven't read a YA novel since The Outsiders
  • who think that YA literature is a vast wasteland with no redeeming value

I know how hard it is to give them time. But given the chance, we read.


  1. We'll said. Could see this developed into a journal article with your YA novel unit materials for The English Journal. Think about it.

  2. I can feel how your heart goes out for the kids and you provide them what they need the most.
    It is hard to read when the list of musts is long. It is hard to read when joy is killed with excessive checking. The good thing is that the ones who have fallen in love with reading will read and enjoy books no matter what the obstacles.

  3. I caught my breath when I read the title of your post. Heartbreaking. I really do feel your frustration. How do we change it? As an elementary teacher I am lucky enough to be able to provide 20 to 30 minutes of pure uninterrupted silent independent reading time. No strings attached. If only the high schools could do the same.

  4. I enjoyed the list of things your students want -- if only more people would listen to them! I certainly wish I had had a teacher like you in middle school or high school. My love of reading was threatened during middle school (dead during school, where I was once forced to sit through an entire unit on White Fang when I had just read it over the summer...) but kept alive because I still had time to read for fun after school. In high school it started to die because I got busy enough that I didn't have as much time to read at home. In college it pretty much died completely, and I just revived it recently. Just horrible. If someone who LOVED books as much as me could lose that love, what about the ones who never found it?

  5. Deb, I recall Richard Elmore saying that high schools suck the intelligence out of kids. They often alienate student engagement with their lack of flexibility and intractability. Traditionally they make kids fit the curriculum rather than fitting the curriculum to the needs of the kids. A great focus to share Deb.

  6. I wish my own children had more high school English teachers who believe like you. It's very frustrating to watch my children (who always loved to read) be told what to read, annotate everything, answer comprehension questions, and write definitions for vocabulary words for everything they write. I do my best to make reading instruction authentic for my third graders and it saddens me to see that kind of instruction fade away in secondary education.

  7. This slice is exactly why I adore you! I just had a talk with my students today about how they need to embrace all they are being given this year and become a READER because in their futures, there will not be a Mrs. Day. (But wouldn't the world be a better place if that weren't true, oh wouldn't it?)

  8. As Janet said, the elementary schools allow a good block of time for just reading books, no strings attached. I have always thought there were some really awesome things going on in the lower grades that kids in the uppers would not only enjoy doing, but benefit from.
    Oh, to be able to retain the enthusiasm for learning and reading that was begun. We don't have to wring every last bit of fun out of learning to prove that we've done work.

  9. As a high school teacher, I have many thoughts on this subject. In this space, I'll just say that I think this is much deeper than reading and the specific texts and activities a teacher might choose. The reason things "go to die" in high school has much to do with how the narrative of schooling shifts. When kids move through the system, school becomes more of an anxious place: I need marks to please my parents, to get into a good school so I can get a good job. The currency of anxiety is marks and performance, and the 'story' of learning becomes 'if you don't succeed at this, your life hangs in the balance'.

    If we want things to change, we need to change the messages it sends to kids about the importance of school and learning.

    1. I so agree with you, Paul. Any activity I do the first question asked is, "How many points is this worth?" I should write about the conversation I have with kids about grade point, class rank and taking a class for the love of learning (not an easy grade).

  10. If you don't allow choice, how can students learn to be the responsible and caring and kind adults we want them to be? As your list says 'they' say Deb, the students do know what they need, & just wish someone would give them a chance. I am glad you started this conversation, just wish we could come to some way to do something about it.


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