When students say they didn’t like the book, it is often because they didn’t understand it. Obviously, everyone has personal tastes, but more often than not, lack of understanding is a common underlying reason with children, who do not have the life experience to fully comprehend what they read, the impact behind it, or the richness of it. This is why novel study in the school curriculum—exposing youth to literature and guiding them through it—is a good thing.
The problem with studying novels at school is that kids get so put off they actually stop reading for enjoyment at the first opportunity.
“Once I finished school, I never read another book for fun again.”
Why does this happen? Well, interview the students. So I did. They all say pretty much the same thing. Elementaries (K-6) and junior highs (7-9) hate the list of vocabulary words and comprehension questions, often left over for homework, and especially the assignment or essay at the end. A huge grievance of high school students is that they are rushed, so they don’t get much out of the novel.
Think about it. If you associated reading with a lot of extra work and little enjoyment, you’d stop reading, too.
“School really put me off reading.”
Assigned comprehension questions exist to ensure the kids read the chapters, to guide them in what key points to look for, and to provide an overview and summarized written record of the book (e.g., for a book review or essay). The vocabulary words are included for obvious reasons. And the teachers need to collect marks. (Let’s just kill natural curiosity and love of learning right now.)
“It’s because of all the work we have to do. It sucks the fun right out of it.”
When learning, people like to hear stories. People relate to stories if they are told in a relevant way. Stories access and engage more parts of the brain than reading dry facts. People remember material better through stories.
So students should enjoy novel studies at school, correct? But they don’t. Why?
Probably because we’re doing it wrong.
Here’s a story
Every Friday afternoon in grade 6, our teacher read to us.
“Yay! Treat! No work!”
Our desktops were clear. All schoolwork was cleared away for the week. All we had to do was sit there. No one even monitored if we were listening, daydreaming, doodling, or sleeping.
With the passing of each week, our class looked forward to these novel and short story sessions ever more.
Forty-three years later, I not only still remembered many of the short stories and novels that were read to us, but I could recite quotes from them. Accurately. I know, because with the wonderful advent of the Internet since my youth, I looked them up.
By contrast, I have virtually no recall of novels I did a bunch of grunt work for in upper elementary or junior high.
Why is that?
As an analytical scientist and specialized clinic teacher, I started thinking. I cross-referenced my own school-kid feelings with the responses I received from students and came up with a list. I believe it’s because of these factors:
- enjoyment was intact: done for fun, got us out of other work, all we had to do was listen
- no strings attached: no questions, homework, future assignments, or tests
- good pace: reading out loud enhanced comprehension and prevented skimming, skipping, and “blasting,” but increased interest with voice, body language, and emphasis
- the teacher hooked us in and oriented us with interesting comments prior to reading: “This story has an unusual ending,” “The first part of this story takes place two thousand years before the second part”
- he provided occasional well-targeted explanations or summarized important points, but not so often to be disruptive
- discussion was immediate and verbal, not through tedious assignments that decreased not only reading enjoyment but reading time in the reading:assignment ratio
- we were all on the same page (pun intended) and engaging at the same time in a social environment, but we didn’t have to commit our thoughts to paper
Many kids love to be read to–but older kids are rarely read to. Furthermore, kids who find reading difficult expend too much effort chewing their way through the words, missing the story and reinforcing their dislike of the process. By reading to kids, you free them, free their brains and imaginations, allow them to think and interpret without being encumbered by the task of decoding.
Verbal discussion is usually preferred by kids, as long as the shy, quiet, contemplative ones are not forced to contribute in front of the class. Verbal discussion and comments, including explanations of the meanings of words, are more effective, since everything is in immediate context.
Scaffolding material by relating what’s in the book to kids’ daily lives is key for comprehension and appreciation. This, in turn, leads to increased experience and critical thinking skills for future books.
Adults make connections they are not always aware of. They also have a foundation of knowledge and life experience they can draw upon, which they often take for granted. Most importantly, adults see generalizations and commonalities, whereas kids, especially younger ones, see anything with different labels and details as isolated things. It’s up to us as educators (teachers and parents) to help them make these connections. Only then will they understand why they are studying Shakespeare in 2017, for example—a common grievance among high school students. We must not only tell them why, but show them by relating the material to modern examples of how the people and themes in Shakespeare’s plays are still very much like people and themes in our lives today.
Anyone can present material, but the professional educator needs to get inside the students’ heads and attempt to see what they see—and don’t see—at their age, developmental level, educational level, and with their limited repository of experience, in order to deliver the information in a way they can comprehend. Children don’t think with adult brains—that’s a key point. Material needs to be presented in a way that is meaningful to the students—which means taking into account such factors as lack of life experience, inability to connect the dots and generalize, and brain maturity according to the developmental stages.
Bring back the joy
Interspersing literature assignments with reading short stories and novels out loud “for fun” as a class may help to preserve students’ interest in reading. Discussing stories orally hits upon many key skills and qualities, and the catch is they get out of doing class work!
Wait. No writing? Nothing to mark?
You may be surprised by what they learn and retain, although the fruits of your labour may not be immediately obvious.
Don’t kill the love of reading by making it only drudgery. Many kids hate work. So reward them from time to time. Sprinkle in stories artfully.
See also: Interview with Jan Hamilton, who brings a wealth of information from her 40 years of classroom and international experience. Although Ms. Hamilton’s work focuses on younger children, her work offers insights for effective teaching on many levels.