It’s one thing to get students to do the assigned reading in class. Encouraging independent reading is another challenge, but one that comes with a wide variety of rewards. Students who read at home are likely to perform better in school, exhibit stronger cognitive progress, and even gain better emotional intelligence and sense of empathy.
However, in 2007, the National Endowment for the Arts found that teenagers and young adults spent 60% less time on voluntary reading than the national average, and nearly half of 18- to 24-year-olds reported reading no books for leisure. Many students rarely read beyond the books they’re assigned in the classroom. So, what can teachers do to change this?
Classics are classics for a reason, and it would be reductive to say that Shakespeare and Austen have nothing relevant to say to young people in the 21st century. But the language and conventions of classic literature can seem daunting and aloof to students, especially when that’s all they’re assigned to read. Multiple studies have shown that when students are able to choose their own reading for book reports and classroom activities, they perform better — not just in that particular grade but in the reading comprehension sections of state tests.
Often, an interest in independent reading begins with finding the right book. The newest, trending best seller in the YA fantasy genre might not be Great Expectations, but it could just be the thing that sparks a love of reading in your students. Allowing students to make their own reading choices can make all the difference.
Creating a Reading List
That said, you will have to mix those “reader’s choice” assignments in with assigned reading that meets the standards of the curriculum. That’s why it’s important to create a reading list that both educates and engages your students. Try mixing older classics with more contemporary reads, and draw parallels between the two to show the relevance of those classics. Here are a few reading recommendations for your class:
- We Don’t Eat Our Classmates by Ryan T. Higgins
- Hey, Water! by Antoinette Portis
- The Camping Trip by Jennifer K. Mann
- The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
- The Classic Adventures of Paddington Bear by Michael Bond
- Indian No More by Charlene Willing McManis
- A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
- Coraline by Neil Gaiman
- Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
- When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
- Holes by Louis Sachar
- The Call of the Wild by Jack London
- A Place to Belong by Cynthia Kadohata
- Animal Farm by George Orwell
- The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey
- The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
- The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
- Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad
- Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
- Lord of the Flies by William Golding
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
- Kim by Rudyard Kipling
- The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper
- Seize the Day by Saul Bellow
- Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams
- In Darkness by Nick Lake
For more reading list recommendations, check out these lists from K-12 School Reading List.
Introduce New Genres.
Don’t be afraid to mix it up. If classic poetry isn’t reaching your students, try bringing in a contemporary romance or a fantasy adventure book. One genre that has had particular success among students is graphic novels. Don’t confuse these with comics! Graphic novels offer serious plots and deep narratives, but their visual elements make it easy for students to engage with them on a new level.
Graphic novels aren’t just for superheroes or vigilantes. Art Spiegelman’s Maus has long been a popular text to use when teaching about the Holocaust. Spiegelman’s parents were Polish Jews who lived through the Holocaust. Maus retells its horrors through a graphic novel with animals: Jews are portrayed as mice, and Germans as cats. Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis portrays the author’s experience growing up during the Islamic Revolution. John Lewis and Andrew Aydin’s March is a graphic novel trilogy about the American civil rights movement. These examples have heavy subjects, but even “lighter” graphic novels can help boost reading comprehension and an interest in reading.
If you treat reading as a dry, serious assignment in the classroom, that is how students will begin to see it. If you want to inspire your students to become excited about reading, you have to show excitement about the selection and come up with engaging classroom activities. Make them a part of the text with some of these classroom activities:
- Read Aloud. Humans are a social species, and this is certainly true of students. Instead of having students read quietly at their desks, ask them to read out loud, and encourage pausing for questions and discussion. The words will resonate more as they’re spoken out loud.
- Choose a Character. Read the story out loud, but let students choose characters that they would like to read for in a particular text. This will strengthen the way they identify with those characters and make the text come alive for them a bit more.
- Act It Out! Speaking of coming alive, consider acting out a popular scene in a book that the class is reading. You and the class can cast some of the characters and then bring them to the front of the classroom to act out the scene. In this way, students can literally put themselves inside the book.
- Talk Show Host (or Podcast Host). Encourage students to have a discussion with their favorite characters! One might choose to portray a particular character, while another might pretend to be a talk show host or podcast host interviewing them. This allows students to move beyond the text and get into the minds of the characters.
- Fan Fiction. If you have room for a written assignment, consider asking students to write a short story using the characters in the assigned reading. Fan fiction, the practice of writing fiction for fun within established worlds, inspires students to not only gain an interest in reading but also in writing.