In the landscape of English-Language Arts, there are different camps for how to best teach the novel, so as with anything, you should read widely about strategies and find the ones that work for you and your students. While I’m a great believer in the power and beauty of classic literature, I believe reading should be a joy and a pleasure, and for some students, particularly what teachers call “reluctant” readers, the classics can be torture. They become just one more irrelevant thing foisted on them by teachers.
Kids who don’t read well may not like to read because they haven’t mastered the skills to tap into the wonderment and magic of a novel. Maybe they didn’t have positive early literacy experiences; maybe they can decode the words but can’t comprehend the meaning; maybe they were forced to read boring texts and associate reading with suffering and agony. The list goes on and on. But I firmly agree with J. K. Rowling, who said, “If you don’t like to read, you haven’t met the right book yet.”
Outside of an AP curriculum, where choices tend toward classic lit, I am a proponent of both the canon and the contemporary – whatever gets a kid to become a crazy-mad reader – comic books, graphic novels, genre fiction, poetry, whatever. Reading is a skill, like writing, that improves with practice. The more a student reads, the better she becomes at reading. The better she becomes at reading, the more she will enjoy the experience and become more proficient. But the first step is hooking the kid, and that hook should be baited with a juicy bite. As he grows as a reader, his tastes and abilities may change. There’s room for all levels and likes at the table of literacy. But how do you get kids to willingly join you?
Here are a few tips to get started.
- Read whole novels, not just excerpts. Teaching students how to analyze and read closely through the use of excised novel passages of no more than 750 words, about the length of a reading passage on the ACT, has become a trend. This practice is not teaching reading; it’s teaching the skim/scan/chunk method of test prep, and it should only be used in addition to reading whole novels. This practice is like asking kids to appreciate a seven-course dining experience, but only giving them the soup.
- Teach reading and analytical skills explicitly. Using To Kill a Mockingbird to study social justice or civil rights is a defensible lesson, but developing reading and critical thinking skills is the primary objective. Any novel can be used as the text by which students learn to analyze theme, characters, diction, syntax, and structure. Teaching a novel isn’t teaching content alone, but as a corrolary enticement to reading skill and practice. Questioning, reacting, inferring, predicting, and analyzing are reading skills students will need whether they’re reading Jude the Obscure or Unwind.
- Create a culture of reading in your classroom. Be excited about reading yourself. Constantly share with your students what you’re currently reading. Share articles, blog posts, videos about popular writers and popular books with your students. Talk about characters as if they were real people. Model what literacy looks like. Have a classroom library, and create many opportunities for them to visit your school’s library. Start an after-school book club. Demonstrate for them that proficiency in reading is powerful personally and politically.
- Become proficient at Lit Circles and Socratic Seminar. The heart of both of these approaches is discussion. When you, as a practiced reader, read something that sits your head on fire, you naturally want to share, talk about it with someone else, analyze the whys and hows. Using Lit Circles and Socratic Seminars in your classroom gives students an outlet and a forming ground for discussing the themes, motivations, and conflicts in the text. The dialogue and debates that both of these practices generate mimic the conversations of practiced and sophisticated thinkers and readers. I’ve used these two practices to great effect in my regular English classes with texts, both classic and contemporary.
- Be a literary matchmaker. Know where your students’ interests lie, and then make recommendations to kids of books you think they will like. If students gravitate naturally toward Young Adult lit, use those texts to teach the skills they will need to develop and strength in order to read more complex texts in the future. I loved teaching the classics, but the language can be arcane, the syntax cumbersome, and the subject matter foreign to a reluctant reader. Bait the hook with their choice of novels, then reel them in with deeper, denser, more challenging reading as they develop their abilities. Help them create the text-to-self connections that make reading relevant and real to them.