I admit it; I pander. Scooby Doo, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Power Puff Girls, Goosebumps, Baseball’s Biggest Bloopers, Rugrats, Captain Underpants, The Day My Butt Went Psycho, all have graced my bookshelves at one point or another. Diary of a Wimpy Kid? Yup. Hunger Games? Duh. Percy Jackson? Of course. Divergent? The day one of my middle schoolers told me she was reading it because her friend told her she had to read it.
Yes, of course, I have the classics, the books kids should read, the timeless literature, the heart-wrenching drama. But let’s face it: not every child is ready for The Secret Garden or Lord of the Flies. And those books that we fell in love with when we were kids? The Hardy Boys, Catcher in the Rye? As dated as the slang that made them sparkle so long ago.
Reading teachers from kindergarten through college are faced with a dilemma: give kids books we know they’ll enjoy, or give them what’s “good for them?” Here are two things to consider. 1) A book a kid loves easily and immediately can serve as a gateway to the rest of the world of literature, especially for reluctant readers. 2) The best and most amazing book, introduced too soon, can inoculate against said book and all its ilk for the rest of a person’s life.
I mean, how many adults (and you may be one of them!) experience a visceral and violent reaction to Dickens because they were forced to read Great Expectations in high school? “Ugh!” They tell you. “Dickens is the worst! That language! It makes no sense. And it goes on and on. I hate it.” Admit that you are reading him for fun and they shudder.
Look: Dickens is an amazing writer. He writes with some of the most expressive and beautiful prose there is. His descriptions are cinematic in their scope and grandeur, biting social satire and incredible human empathy. And he is wordy as all get out and very, well, Victorian. That cinematic imagery reads to most high school freshman like the teacher in a Charlie Brown special: mwah mwah mwah mwah, mwah mwah mwah mwah. If you’re lucky, the top readers of the class enjoy the book, but the reluctant readers? You’ve just proven to them again that reading sucks.
Reluctant readers already hate reading. Why? Because it is hard for them. Anytime a student tells me a book is boring, I translate into “too hard for me to enjoy.” Either the sheer act of decoding the words on the page is laborious enough to take away the brainpower necessary for comprehension, the vocabulary or syntax of the passage is unfamiliar and thereby erects a wall between the reader and the meaning of the text, or the reader has trouble visualizing what they read. In any case, reading is too effortful to allow the student to get lost in the book.
Reluctant readers may not even know what they are missing. A freshman girl one time lowered her voice conspiratorially and asked, “Be honest. Do you actually enjoy reading?” I was shocked that she didn’t get that enjoyment, nay, love, was the motivator for everything I was teaching her. She was shocked that anyone actually liked this whole reading thing.
Now, take one of these kids who think reading is a total must do kind of thing and give them a book about something they love and already know about. First of all, you’ve instantly given them internal motivation to read. Secondly, you’ve given them a chance to use their domain-specific knowledge to support their comprehension. Huh? You are tapping into what they already know about, so that they can use that to help them understand the text.
I worked with a middle school boy whose mother told me, “I don’t care what grades he gets. I just want him to choose to pick up a book now and again.” We started brainstorming what wouldn’t be too terrible (forget the word “enjoyable”) for him to read. He finally told his mom and me that if he had to waste his time reading, at least he wanted to learn something from it. No fiction! Our routine became simple: review and teach phonics and morphology and then Google something he was curious about and read it. One day, we read a comparison of aluminum bats, carbon fiber bats and wooden bats. Another, we read about Belgian Waffles and the special pearl sugar needed to make them come out just right (supremely entrepreneurial, he wanted to set up a competing shop near the Belgian Waffle booth at the farmer’s market). A third, we read about the Corvette Z06 Carbon Limited Edition.
I never could have guessed his varied interests. But once he was reading because he had a “need to know” as Maria Montessori called it, he naturally employed all the comprehension strategies of good readers: monitoring his comprehension, making predictions, checking out unknown vocabulary and unfamiliar syntax, visualizing, asking questions of the text and reading with the purpose of answering them. Slowly, he started applying these skills to fiction. One day he came in amazed and excited because he had found a fiction book he was actually enjoying: Alex Rider. He told me it was the first time he had been able to picture what was happening in a story, and agreed that it made it much more fun. Eventually, he even started to apply these strategies to assigned reading. Reading about what interested him became the gateway for him to learn to be interested in what he had to read.
So, even though we all want our kids to love Treasure Island, or Anne of Green Gables right off the bat, we have a lot to gain from taking a deep breath, asking them what they want to read, and even offering them Captain Underpants or one of the endless Rainbow Magic Fairies Book Series. After all, what we really want is for them to learn to love reading, not to learn that reading is a painful drag that grown-ups, inexplicably, make you do.