Stop literacy shaming! Engaging the so-called “non-readers”

Do YOU literacy shame?

I can’t believe that a single educator would ever admit to shaming a child for being literate. One of the main goals of the education profession is to encourage students to improve their literacy skills.

And yet, if polled, I’m willing to bet there are a lot of educators who would admit to discouraging students from reading particular titles, genres, or formats. I bet a lot of teachers and school librarians have told students to choose a different book to read than the one they’ve latched on to. I bet a lot of reading guidance providers have put on a sour expression and said, “That’s not a real book,” or something similar.

I know I’ve been guilty of all of the above. But the longer I’ve worked in education, the more I’ve come to realize that there is more to literature, Horatio, than is dreamt of in my own personal philosophy.

It’s taken me years, but recently, I’ve become very aware that many folks–educators, administrators, students, and parents–have a mental image of what it means to be a “reader.” Anything that falls outside that image is labelled as “not real reading.” That “not real reading” label is often applied vociferously. That, my friends, is literacy shaming.

What is a “non-reader”?

Chiquita Toure recently wrote an excellent posted titled, “Encouraging the so-called “non-readers”: Fine-tuning book displays.” In it, she gives some excellent and specific suggestions on how to get the “reluctant reader” to engage with library materials.

The minute my eyes hit her title, though, I was immediately transported back to October of this year. My middle school’s English department has begun to earnestly push independent reading in the past few years. The summer 2018 curriculum refresh included a unit devoted to independent reading. We’re finally getting serious about this, ya’ll! So when the parent of one of my students expressed concern about independent reading, I was glad to lend a hand.

The student hadn’t done the September independent reading and was looking at a zero in the gradebook. His mother told me that her student was “not a reader” and that he was going to find this ongoing assignment extremely difficult. I sat down with the student to try to find a solution to this dilemma that would empower him to succeed.

One of the first things he said to me was, “I don’t like to read. If it’s not a graphic novel, I’m probably not going to go for it.” I was rocked back on my heels–why would a kid who loved to read graphic novels say he was not a reader?

Graphic novels are still NOVELS

Clearly, there’s a perception problem when it comes to graphic novels in particular. They are often seen as being a lesser form of writing, and rarely are looked at as “literature.” Even among folks whose opinions I respect, I often hear things like, “Graphic novels are a good way to get non-readers into literature.” To my mind, this implies that once non-readers see that graphic novels can be a joy to read, they will move on to “real” books.

Treating graphic novels like a “lesser” form of literature not only ignores some important qualities of the format, but it also denigrates an entire subset of reading material. And it’s a further problem that kids who read graphic novels are made to feel like they’re not “real” readers.

This is insane, on several levels!

The case for multimedia literacy

First and foremost, treating graphic novels as “not real reading” completely ignores the fact that graphic novels contain text. In fact, graphic novels are novels (gasp!) that also happen to require their readers to interpret graphics (double gasp!) to comprehend the story.

If anything, one could argue that graphic novels require a greater degree of sophistication to interpret, as they rely on the interplay of a variety of visual clues, along with the text, to deliver the message to the audience.

Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art is a graphic novel textbook that does an amazing job of explaining the depth that can be found in graphic novels and comic books in an engaging and entertaining way. But don’t let the format fool you–McCloud’s book makes an excellent case for the importance of graphic novels as a form that can combine the best qualities of art and literature.

We live in an age when it’s more important than ever to have students engage with multimedia materials. Graphic novels can be an excellent tool to encourage literacy.

It’s all about curation

Granted, there are some really crummy, repetitious, ham-handed graphic novels out there. But that is true of every genre. How often have you heard a student say, “I hate that genre,” and then gush about a title that falls into that genre? Sometimes readers bring genre biases to the school library because they have been exposed to some poor examples of that genre. Other times, their preconceptions aren’t based on personal experience at all–they’ve never actually tried that genre. But if school librarians can offer some outstanding examples of the genre, readers might see that great writing happens across genres.

If we take the time to curate a collection of the best-of-the-best titles, possibly along with some mediocre-but-popular “bridge” titles, there’s no reason for anyone to be ashamed of having–or heading to–a graphic novel section.

It’s more than graphic novels

I recently saw a Twitter thread about people feeling ashamed for liking particular titles. The Twilight series, for example, was held up as one of the most shame-inducing works that people “secretly” loved. I bet more than a few of you reading this smiled just then, either because you are also a closet Twilight fan, or because you think Twilight is the worst. But why the heck should anyone be ashamed to have read a book?

Frankly, I don’t care if a kid likes to read graphic novels, verse novels, magazines, picture books (have you seen Shaun Tan’s The Arrival? It’s amazing!), or cereal boxes. If a kid is reading, then the kid is reading! Yes, there are better and worse texts, but kids should never feel like they’re not “real” readers if they are engaging with text, no matter what genre, format, or medium it comes in. We need to stop the format shaming!

What’s the point of text shaming?

There seems to be a belief in many circles that there are “right” things to read and “wrong” things to read. I’ve spoken with parents who insist their child must only read “classics.” But the vocabulary, subject matter, or background information required to truly comprehend that work is not always developmentally appropriate. Reading the words on the page is not the same as engaging with a text. And forcing kids to read is a great way to program their minds to dislike reading.

If a kid is reading below their reading level, they’re going to get bored. Then they’ll seek out the next level up. If we encourage kids to read whatever they find interesting, they’re eventually going to find those pieces that bring their reading to the next level. And they’ll do it on their own, without teachers or school librarians needing to track their “reading level” or Lexile level or whatever other kinds of labels or statistics we try to slap on literacy. With this kind of organic literacy growth, kids will actually want to read and learn.

Science says: “Encourage reading engagement!”

It’s a well-studied experimental fact that intrinsic motivation is the most important factor for student learning. The more kids find their motivation coming from their own engagement with and interest in the topic, the more they are going to internalize that knowledge. As soon as educators, parents, or school librarians start slapping on grades and checklists and other methods of “tracking progress,” students’ motivation starts to shift.

There is also an ever-increasing number of scientific studies that point to the many benefits of reading. The article “Reading Has Huge Life-Long Benefits” by Austin Landis and Chance Seales at Newsy.com links to nearly a dozen different studies detailing the benefits of reading. This is just a small handful of the many studies pointing to the importance of reading.

Literacy shaming only drives readers away from the benefits of reading. So it’s time to get off our high horses and embrace any kind of reading as “real reading.”

Embracing reading leads to more reading

My “non-reader” student and I quickly came to the conclusion that not only was he a reader, but that he had some preferences for the type of reading he enjoyed. I gave him Marie Lu’s Warcross, and he returned it two days later having read all 300 pages in an almost non-stop reading marathon. Clearly, calling himself a “non-reader” was no longer going to fly. I feel pretty comfortable saying this is the case with all the “non-readers” out there–they just haven’t found the right book yet. Once they do, stand back, because they’re going to knock you down on their way to their favorite titles!

Let’s get past the labels. Let’s get past our personal preferences. Let’s make choice in reading the standard, rather than the exception. Let’s support all our readers. Let’s curate literature experiences and options that fit the needs and interests of our students. Let’s help our students see themselves as readers. Let’s create readers who aren’t afraid to talk about their reading. Because that’s how we empower life-long learning.

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Author: Steve Tetreault

Steve has been teaching middle school English for 20 years, and is finishing his last semester as a school library media specialist student. He is an old dog constantly learning new tricks!



Categories: Blog Topics, Collection Development, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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11 replies

  1. Great post! Refreshing to read and your points are excellent. Funny, it brought back a memory for me of a zero I received in elementary school in independent reading. In my case, I was actually reading books by the truck load but didn’t want to take the time away from my reading to do the reflections that the teacher had required of us. And I wound up being a librarian! Too funny…

  2. I love this article so much!! This is one of my soapbox issues ;) I’ve shared it with my YA Lit class and on my page.

  3. Thanks, Cathy! I’m glad you enjoyed the piece. And it’s funny (and a little sad) how what students are doing in their lives is not always captured by the grades they get.

  4. Oh, this killed me when I worked in elementary school! Boys tearing through all the shark books, or dinosaur books, etc., suddenly told they need to read a chapter book–only within their Lexile–because they need to REALLY read. When I caught up with them in middle school, they were confirmed non-readers. Until I introduced them to narrative nonfiction . Luckily their teachers were in agreement that reading is reading.

  5. Super article, Steve! We need to convince students, teachers and parents NOT to literacy shame. Thank you for spreading the word with your honesty.

  6. Yes, I agree entirely with your points and only wish that you had more room to extrapolate your argument.

    My favorite library moment was with a gr6 boy whose English teacher said never read, no matter what she did – so I asked him what he’d like to read about in a book. He knew exactly “Guns! Big guns!” I looked to the teacher whose face had puckered up like the back end of a cat, then we went and got some Chris Ryan. The teacher continued to have that face all year long, but boy that kid read a lot of books.
    ;-)

  7. Excellent article! But, let’s not leave adults out of this picture… we all know that when adults in the house are readers, the children in the house are more likely to become readers. If we literacy shame the adults in our lives, who knows what they take home to their children… our students.

  8. Excellent article! I totally agree! We need to encourage kids to be readers, and that means anything!

  9. I was going to add that although I never was directly told the science fiction and mystery books I read were not real reading, I knew enough not to mention exactly what I was reading to some older adults when I was in my teens and 20s. When I became a public librarian, I remember realizing that genres such as sf, western, horror and romance were all enjoyable to many different people (including my mother and grandmother, both in the education field). I decided not to judge people on their reading tastes if I didn’t want to be judge myself

  10. I would add this happens not just with content but with difficulty of content. When I was in 2nd grade I tried to check out a book from the Prydian Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander at our school library, but the librarian shouted “that’s a 5th grade reading level! You can’t check that out”. Took me almost 20 years to finally realize how great those books are.

  11. Thank you so much for this! I get so frustrated when teachers discourage students from checking out great graphic novels for their “free reading” selections! If it’s supposed to be a free choice selection, then let them choose what they want. We have a great selection of graphic novels because I work hard to make sure that we do. I also want to add that many people are reluctant to include audiobooks in “real” reading. For teens and adults though, listening to the book is essentially the the same as reading when it comes to comprehension. So if we’re doing the reading for free choice or for pleasure reading, why not listen to the book? I understand the pushback on this one in the school a bit though, because the argument is that reading in school is helping them prepare for reading on the test, which is not audio.

    But I still maintain that if we want them to enjoy reading, and we are asking them to read one book a month for pure enjoyment, we should let them do an audiobook if that’s what they most enjoy.

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