If students are readers, readers that read books, their chances of academic success go up immeasurably.
Literacy skills have not substantially improved in over twenty-five years in any age or socioeconomic grouping. Teen reading of books is in an unprecedented decline. There are two essential things that can be done to get and keep your students reading. First, you have to be a reading role model yourself, especially to the fifty percent or more of your students who do not have adult reading role models at home. And even with learning restrictions dictated by mandatory testing overloading your schedule, you should try to find the time daily, or at least weekly, to read aloud to your students – especially middle school and high school students. Reading aloud excerpts or complete articles from interesting and informative books, magazines, and newspapers expands children’s and teens’ vocabularies; exposes students to quality language use; and motivates kids to read themselves – especially if you stop reading at a point of critical interest or “decide” that the book or article-wink, wink- is too “old” for them.
Good readers make great writers.
If you want your students to write well, do everything you can to get them excited about reading.
Do not assume that helping students improve their reading and writing skills is only the responsibility of the English Department.
Elementary, middle school, and secondary school teachers and administrators of every academic specialization need to promote reading and writing in every class situation, even science and math. Harvard astrophysicist Margaret Geller says that if kids don’t acquire good reading and writing skills, they will never be able to move to higher levels of study in math and science.
Introduce, or reintroduce, your students to the library in your school and the local public library.
Many of your students have not been introduced to libraries by their families. It is not safe to assume that your older students have been taught how to do research or how to use a library’s resources. In too many schools students are never taught how to do research and most adolescents will be too embarrassed to ask an adult for help. Middle school and high school students should be taken on a tour of the public library. They need to know how to access current periodicals and back issues; how to use a microfilm machine if still in use; how to use computers to search for the books and information they need, and how to find that information in the library and on the Internet. They need to be shown the reference department and be introduced to the books and resources within the department. They need to know that most libraries have Young Adult sections with information and entertainment created just for them. Students need to know that librarians are there to help them.
Reading material off the Internet is not equivalent to the in-depth experience of reading books. They don’t call it surfing the Net for nothing.
Teach your students how to research in a library and on the Internet. Make sure your students know that they can trust the materials and information that they find in the library because it has already been vetted by knowledgeable librarians. Make sure they understand that, at present, there is no quality control on the Internet, and that they should be highly critical and wary of the information they find on the Net. The Internet can be wonderful, but as the old saying goes, it is better to be safe than sorry.
Expand students’ use of email.
Many people use a shorthand language when emailing and often use the medium for quick questions and responses, but that does not mean that it is the only way to use email. Resurrect the art of letter writing in your classes and apply it to email. Help your students to understand that there is a time and place for shorthand notes on email, but that the medium can also be used to write and send personal letters, business letters, essays, reflections, anecdotes, short stories, humorous observations, and any manner of long and short written communications.
Get rid of “student” dictionaries and thesauri.
They’re awful and a waste of good money. Use real “adult” dictionaries and thesauri and teach your students to use them as soon as they can read and understand alphabetical order. Old fashioned dictionaries with great black and white line illustrations fascinate kids. Younger students love to be considered mature enough to use adult tools. Older students need to understand that spell check is a poor substitute for a dictionary.
Take a look at the literature you include in your curriculum. Is it balanced?
Do you expose your students to poetry, fiction, great biographies, memoirs, history, and science? Do you include a wide range of books that interest boys and girls? Do you include literature that reflects the wide variety of Americans’ cultural experiences? Do you include literature that expands your students’ understanding of the world? Too often educational critics accuse multiculturalism advocates of pushing out the “western canon” in favor of a more diverse exposure. Why can’t classroom reading include George Washington and George Washington Carver? Kids and teens need to read nonfiction as well as fictional and historical stories that feature people of ethnic heritages similar to their own, and they need to read stories about ethnic and cultural heritages different from their own. Students need to know the stories of the men who founded our country, and they need to know the stories of the women who built our nation, too. Students need to read fiction with male protagonists and some with female protagonists.
Encourage your academic colleagues and your state’s Department of Education to expand their teacher training curriculums and insist that courses in children’s and young adult literature be a mandatory requirement for state teacher certification.
Currently, forty-seven states do not require courses in children’s and/or young adult literature for teacher certification. Transforming a student into a lifelong reader is often dependent on the match of the right book to the right young person. You cannot facilitate that interaction if you are unfamiliar with the wide variety of books available to children and teens.
Encourage your academic colleagues to expand their teacher training curriculums so that all teachers are given instruction in teaching writing.
Good writing is much more than grammar and spelling. Many teachers have not been given the tools they need to teach students how to write well. Many teachers have not been taught how to critique beyond basic grammar and spelling. Teacher training needs to expand so that every teacher knows how to help his or her students become better writers.
The Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison offers authoritative booklists organized by age and theme that can help you find the perfect books for your students:
Also be sure to check out the many recommendations listed on our Great Reads page.