Engaging Teens in Reading – First Steps

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As a young newlywed, my mother-in-law gave me my first cookbook. She said, “If you can read, you can cook!” I took her words to heart and, in fact, 30 years later, I am still reading and cooking from my Better Homes and Garden cookbook’s battered and worn pages.

How does this story relate to helping teens engage in reading?

To answer that question, you must first examine the story. Why did I want to read my cookbook? First, as a new bride, I had a personal interest in cooking.   Second, I had a purpose for reading my cookbook – I wanted to learn to cook.

Unfortunately, in today’s middle and high schools students are often disengaged from texts that they are required to read, mostly because students do not have a personal interest in the texts that are assigned to them. They see no relevance between these texts and their everyday lives. To students, their phone and/or computer makes for a much more interesting read!

Further, the process of assigning pages to be read, lecturing, and asking students to answer questions is still the norm in many of our secondary schools. Students have no real authentic purpose for reading the assigned texts, other than to get a good grade, or to please their teacher.  And this becomes detrimental as students progress through high school and the content becomes increasingly complex and abstract.

What can teachers and parents do to engage their students in reading?

While there are literally hundreds of strategies teachers can use to engage their students in reading texts (more on this in future posts), at the most basic level, students need a choice of texts and a reason for reading those texts. By providing students with authentic choices and purposes for reading, students are much more likely to engage in reading a text. Teachers can provide a variety of texts  at varying levels of difficulty (with the help of the librarian or reading coach/specialist) that aid in answering a problem, question or dilemma that is implicit to the subject matter.  Through an interactive discussion of a content area and its “big ideas,” students and teachers can come up with questions and problems relative to the topic to be learned. Every content area has its problems, dilemmas, and big questions to be answered.  In my experience, most teenagers enjoy discussing those “big idea” questions, and often with more empathy and sensitivity than we adults give them credit for.

As a computer teacher at an alternative public high school,  my students were often reluctant readers who did not have a lot of successful school experiences.  And, they were not going to read our thick technical textbook.   But as they tried to build and fix broken computers, I noticed how engaged they became in reading their text in an attempt fix their computers. My students learned to fix computers, just as I learned to cook, because they were purposefully and mindfully reading.   And, as they read, they became more proficient, engaged readers!

If you are a teacher, what are the big ideas in your content area? How can you facilitate a classroom conversation that piques students’ interest with those big ideas? In what ways can you help students to formulate questions and or discover problems surrounding those big ideas? And, finally, how can you facilitate your students’ reading of print and digital texts so they are able to find answers to those questions and/or solutions to the problems and dilemmas they discover in your classroom?

If you are a parent, think about ways you might expand on what your student is studying and learning in school.  Is there another medium (video, audio, website, game) on the same topic area that might interest your child?  Do you or someone you know have knowledge about the topic your child is studying?  If so, what are the big ideas as you see them?  What other ways can you connect your child’s out-of-school experiences to what he or she learning in school?

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