Why High School Students Don’t Read

Elementary schools are alive with reading. Students are excited about the books they read in class, they enjoy going to the school library, and they beg their parents to fill out the Scholastic book orders. Teachers of elementary aged children seek out new material, read it, and incorporate it into their classrooms. What are your elementary aged children reading? Most of it is not what you read as a child. The books are new and hip and relevant to today’s kids. The world of children’s literature is alive and vibrant, and elementary schools bring that world to students. Exciting stories in the classroom promote reading outside the classroom.  This doesn’t happen in later grades. Between elementary school and college, students stop reading. It happens in junior high and high school, and the current curriculum is the reason.

When examining what my children are experiencing in junior high and high school English classes, and listening to my college students about their reading experiences in high school, I see that the books being taught in high school are not chosen to encourage an enjoyment of reading. In eighth and ninth grade, my son read Great Expectations, The Fall of the House of Usher, Fahrenheit 451, Lord of the Flies, and Robinson Crusoe. I loved these books (English major that I am) when I read them, but couldn’t something contemporary be added to mix? The most recent of these books was published more than fifty years ago.

Classics are good for teaching; they show “universal truths” and provide good opportunities for analysis and discussion, but they are dated. They are hard to read. There are contemporary novels that handle the same “universal truths” and provide similar opportunities for analysis and discussion that adolescents would enjoy much more than the ones being used in today’s classrooms.

My son spent the first twelve years of his life an avid reader; he called the library his favorite place to be. Last year, he told me he hated English. His comment at the end of eighth grade: “The Diary of Anne Frank was the most cheerful book we read this year, and it was only cheerful because she didn’t know she was going to die.”

The classics should not be thrown away, nor should contemporary books be ignored. Amazing books are being written for young adults that could be used in combination with the classics. Compare The Lord of the Flies to The Hunger Games; Have journalist Anne Frank interview The Book Thief‘s Liesel Meminger. How would one of Sarah Dessen’s protagonists handle being stranded on a desert island? Students bored and not participating in group discussions? Get them to read Jodi Picoult and you’ll hear their opinions on a whole range of topics. Topics that matter to them.  If they discover a new author in school that they like, there is a good chance they will want to read outside of school as well.

Junior high and high school English teachers should take a look at what is going on in elementary schools. Reading is alive; it is dynamic; it is exciting in the early grades. It could be this in the older grades too.


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