David Rickert

Why Students Don’t Read (And What To Do About It)

bookIn college I worked at a local book store where one day we received a humorous couple of phone calls.

“Do you have the Cilffsnotes to Hiroshima?” the boy on the other end asked. The book was read in the local high school, and the students had to buy it for class. Unfortunately, there are no Cliffsnotes to Hiroshima (probably because the book is so short), so he hung up.

Two minutes later, the same kid calls back. This time he asked, “uh, do you have Hiroshima?”

This story was a lot funnier before I had students like this in class.

I have a fair number of students that don’t read the books that I assign. I know that many do the reading, but a some don’t. The fact that this is in an AP Literature class make this all the more unbelievable. Why sign up for an AP class if you don’t want to read? Most say they just want the weighted grade or the college credit.

If these students didn’t read and were failing as a result, then I could rest assured that the students are being punished for their misdeeds. However, most of the kids that don’t read aren’t dumb; they are actually very smart. Smart enough to come to class having read summaries of a book, prepared to eagerly listen to class discussion so that they can fake their way through actually reading it. And it’s especially grating that many of them take pride in getting through school without reading books. 

So the simple answer to the question of why students don’t read is simple: because they can.

This is probably my biggest headache. However, in order to deal with this problem and not get extremely angry and frustrated, I try to keep a couple of things in mind.

1. Don’t take it personally. If a student has made up their mind that they aren’t going to read books in my class, there’s a good chance that this isn’t the first time that they’ve done it (I teach seniors). They have honed their ability to get by in school without reading for years now. I might inspire them to read something, but I’m not likely to change patterns of behavior that have become habit. And chances are, if they had another teacher, they would be doing the same thing.

2. This doesn’t reflect poorly on me. If I went to the office and complained that my students weren’t reading, no one would say “you obviously aren’t a good teacher.” They would say, “You obviously have lazy students.”

3. This is not a problem I am ever going to solve. I have tried every method I can think of to outwit kids that don’t read,and sometimes have a pathological obsession with catching the culprits. I have never come up with a solution that absolutely punishes those who don’t read while rewarding those who do. Daily reading quizzes make more work for me and don’t always catch those who only read the “study guides” online, and can punish those who read, but may not understand the text. For the most part, all I’ve come up with is ineffective solutions that only make more work for me. And if I don’t catch the non-readers, then all I’ve done is made the original problem worse.

I have to accept the fact that this is a problem that I’m never going to solve. That doesn’t mean that I should ignore the problem completely; I can always take steps to curb the problem as much as I can.


4. Whether or not students read is their choice. Pretty much everything in school is, actually. When I give a test if students ask if they have to take it, I say no. They can always choose not to do it. They are free to not do work, but they aren’t free from the consequences of their choice. And that’s really where I get stuck with kids who don’t read; I feel like their should be a negative consequence for choosing video games over books. I can tell them that later in life their lack of effort will catch up to them, but who knows if that might be true. It might or might not, and I’m not likely to get the satisfaction of a student coming back to me ten years later to tell me that I was right all along.

Anyway, I really don’t want to live in a world that’s consumed with this kind of bookkeeping where if you make a mistake then you will pay for it. That doesn’t seem to be a very kind thing to do for anyone, and is not likely to encourage kids to read. In fact, it is more likely to encourage them not to read even more.

5. Don’t let those who don’t do work take away from those who do. This is a common problem that I know a lot of teachers face: a couple of hairballs in a class distracts you from the kids who are actually there to get an education. But I’ve learned to never base my instruction on what the lowest common denominator will or won’t do.

Dealing with plagiarism is a good parallel here. There are times that I have spent an hour trying to catch a kid plagiarizing. Sometimes I’m successful and sometimes I’m not. But either way I get mad at myself for having spent so much time on one kid that won’t do what he should. Plagiarism, like not reading, is another problem that I won’t solve completely. I read somewhere that trying to completely stop plagiarism is like vaccinating an entire village for one sick person. I do what I can, but I’m not going to spend more whole day trying to catch those who cheat.

If I really wanted to, I could figure out a way to stop kids from not reading. However, it would drastically change the way I teach. I would spend much more time on trying to catch kids not doing work than actually teaching kids. The second is more important, and if I spent too much time on the first, I become very frustrated and discouraged. If you focus too much on the negative in teaching, you won’t allow the positives to guide you through the day.

For some fun comics that might encourage students to read, click here to go to my store.

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4 comments on “Why Students Don’t Read (And What To Do About It)

  1. amclemmer
    May 15, 2013

    I’m curious how much of your assigned text is required by school, district, or state standards? What kind of impact do you think these requirements have on your students engagement in reading? (I do realize this question is sort of outside of the scope of your argument that kids who can get by without reading will keep doing that, which is an unfortunate truth.)

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    • davidrickert
      May 15, 2013

      The texts that we read are all determined at the district level. However, the district leaves the AP classes alone because we answer to a higher power. Therefore, all of the books that I select are ones that I have chosen – with a little input from what tends to appear on the test.

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  2. Leslie Healey
    May 17, 2013

    I try to enjoy the number of kids who do read in my AP Lit class, instead of mourn for the ones who do not. But it is difficult: knowing ABOUT a book is not the same as knowing the book. “Answers are overrated” is one of my posters, and the kids know it is directed at knowing the answers after checking shmoop instead of reading the book.
    On the other hand, they have learned how to get by with as little work as possible, which is a great life skill, if I look at it honestly. AP is hard, because there is just no space for choice. I add choice reading into all my other classes. It changes how they view reading when they choose books for themselves.

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    • davidrickert
      May 17, 2013

      Those are good points. I do have a dystopian novel at the end of the year – after we are done with the test – and they do seem to be more engaged with those simply because they were able to choose. I wish I could do that more, but the test really doesn’t allow it. You need to really guide kids through a number of books so that they are adequately prepared for the test. However, I do feel like you could fake your way through the open question by just knowing about a book rather than actually reading it. The other parts do require you to have practiced some close reading skills, and that’s where those who don’t read become apparent.

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