The Pain of Reading

IMG_0826Horace Mann was supposed to have once said, “A house without books is like a room without windows.”  But I wonder whether that is true anymore.  What with all the “windows to the world” that people carry around with them nowadays, are books moving towards the trash heap of history?

Once in a grammar class, I was teaching the use of infinitives, and we had this template that students were to fill in:  “When I am on vacation, I have more time __________________.”  When the students were discussing what they had written, one student had written, “When I am on vacation, I have more time to read books.”  Another student immediately commented, “Why work on your vacation?”

Many ESL students haven’t read a lot in their first languages, so “the joy of reading” hasn’t been established or so it seems.  In a high-intermediate reading class just this quarter, students interviewed each other about their reading habits, and one question asked if the students knew what “the joy or pleasure of reading” was.  Few students had a clue.  Given the task of reading in a second language, ESL students seem to approach every reading assignment as if I were asking them to do heavy lifting.  They understand that they will be required to read much more in their content classes than we require in lower level ESL classes, but I get the feeling that when they finally finish their studies, they will never pick up another book to read.

So what is the solution in the little time I have with my ESL students?  According to the short video, A Vision of Students Today 

students read on average 2300 webpages and 1281 Facebook profiles per year and write 500 pages of emails per semester.  Students are obviously interested in reading text message after text message.  How do you transfer that interest to the reading of books?

In lower level ESL classes, high-interest readings are assigned:  short biographies of famous people (Tony Hawk, Mother Teresa and people from the students’ home countries), articles on the funny/embarrassing aspects of learning English (stories that mix up sheet/shit, piece/piss, bomb/bum), and readings on family, relationships, multiculturalism in the U.S. (Amish), and other topics chosen by textbook writers.  However, one definition of the joy of reading is that it is an experience where you can’t put down the book.  And you want more time to read.  I want students to find books that fit into this category.  The textbooks provide ideas but not the joy of reading.

Our library has a 10-level ESL section and a Multicultural Workshop Box containing 3 levels of many short, topical articles.  Students can freely choose the books and articles based on their interests.  I always recommend that they check out three books or three articles at a time.  This reading assignment should not be work, so if a student finds out that an article or book is not as fascinating as s/he thought, the book or article can be put aside because there are two other choices waiting for the student.  Also, the following week the students come back to class and make recommendations of the readings they have done.  If students can find that one book or article that they can’t stop reading, perhaps a positive association might be created.  Students will still be assigned readings they don’t want to do, but they may learn that not all reading is work.

2 thoughts on “The Pain of Reading

  1. This is a topic near and dear to a librarian’s heart. In addition to the ESL section and the Multicultural Workshop Box in the library, I’ve been toying with the idea of starting a Leisure Reading collection – genre fiction, graphic novels, and new adult books, anything that might introduce students to the pleasures of reading. My question is – if we build it, will they come?


  2. Richard, I am so happy to have this statistic showing how much students actually read. On an initial student questionnaire for each quarter, I ask students how much time they read weekly and what types of texts/materials. I don’t believe they ever state, “500 text messages and 200 FB posts.” Perhaps this is another part of reading awareness. Many of our students, including the ESL students you mention, do not have a family history of reading for pleasure, starting with children’s picture books and moving into chapter books and then into novels, poetry, short stories, etc. Whenever I take my 4 yr-old daughter to the library, we choose 3 to 7 books to explore. Some of these are definite “misses,” most often because I’ve grabbed a book off a shelf without looking, but other times there are unexpected gems that we then look to buy and re-read countless times. One bad book does not negate the joy of reading. This reaffirms my belief that those students in question are not only missing that experience of finding the work that they “can’t put down,” but they are also missing the experience of seeing themselves as readers at all! But the statistics you provide show just the opposite. As I am working to develop the English Summer Bridge course, the concept of metacognition and reader-awareness looms large. It may be that students need to reinterpret what it means to be a reader, to be given permission to see the text messages and social media as legitimate “readings.” Though not always of the highest caliber, depending on your social circle, there can be links to very well-developed and insightful articles, or at least articles that we could examine to understand audience and purpose. Of course, this may mean that we too need to reexamine and relax our own definitions as part of the gradual process.

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