It’s easy to get discouraged when talking to high school students about reading. I’ve asked the question “What do you like to read?” countless times in my quest to pair teens with books that will engage them.
Some recent responses:
“I don’t read.”
“I hate reading.”
“The last book I read was Diary of a Wimpy Kid in 4th grade.”
“I just read the SparkNotes.”
“I got an A on the summer reading assignment and didn’t even pick up the book.”
It’s a continuous struggle among secondary school educators: how can we motivate high school students to read for pleasure when they are overscheduled with academic and extracurricular agendas? Often, the students broadcasting their aversion to reading are accomplished teens who have no trouble excelling in their studies. Their resistance is based on their lack of experience with (or failure to remember) the joy of getting lost in a book. Though I run creative contests like March Book Madness, and display books using themes such as Taylor Swift songs, I’m still waiting for the day library books start flying off the shelves.
IRPs to the Rescue
Enter: Independent Reading Projects. For the past several years I’ve collaborated with an 11th-grade English teacher on a Speed Dating with Books event. After hearing an overview of 10 books and sampling more titles at book stations, each student chooses a nonfiction book to read over the course of a few months, completing related reflection assignments. Choice seems to be the key component in the project’s success. As stated in an AdLit article about adolescents, “Teenagers who have disengaged from learning often feel they lack control over their lives. This is especially true for students who have negative attitudes toward reading.” (Krogness, n.d.). Giving them full control over their IRP selections starts them off with a feeling of agency, which carries over into their reading mindsets. Combining student choice with a requirement to participate in an IRP project is a way to ensure that students will have the chance to experience engagement with reading.
Expanding our Horizons
This year, as per new ELA department requirements, I’ve expanded my collaborations to include all English classes. So far, in addition to our main Speed Dating event with juniors, I’ve worked with freshman and senior classes, catering lessons to their needs. In future months, I’ll host sophomore classes. The results seem promising as I watch the students make connections between their interests and the books that they choose. It’s satisfying to watch their pleasant surprise when they learn there are books about topics ranging from hoarders and farmers, to social media influencers and mermaid impersonators.
It’s All in the Details
Though our well-oiled plan for the 11th-grade Speed Dating event works at this point, I knew that for the ninth graders I had to create a lesson that minimized disorder. For them, I went old school and provided two handouts for each student. One was a reader evaluation survey, helping them assess what kind of book they might like to read. The other was a chart of the books, on which they could take notes and record their initial reactions. Giving them something active to do while I gave brief book talks kept them focused. As they listened, they also had access to books and summaries displayed on their tables. For the 12th graders, whose motivation dwindles by the day, I kept it simple. Their teachers wanted to limit the options to 10 books, which I featured on a slide show. Afterward, they casually looked through the books and summaries on their tables.
In an ideal world, high school students would be picking up books and relaxing with them in their off time. But that’s not happening on a large scale. Mandatory independent reading projects are a great way to gently push teens to read, giving them the extensive benefits that will continue to help them in college and beyond. Not only is it easy to personalize the projects for teachers, but it’s also exciting to come up with bookish activities that liven up the lessons. Once students learn that books can help them escape from the stress of their everyday lives, they’re more likely to turn to reading for pure enjoyment.
Krogness, Mary. n.d. “Motivating Reluctant Adolescent Readers.” AdLit. Accessed December 4, 2023. https://www.adlit.org/topics/motivation-and-engagement/motivating-reluctant-adolescent-readers.
Author: Karin Greenberg
Karin Greenberg is the librarian at Manhasset High School in Manhasset, New York. She is a former English teacher and writes book reviews for School Library Journal. In addition to reading, she enjoys animals, walking, hiking, and spending time with her family. Follow her book account on Instagram @bookswithkg.