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Encouraging Students to Read: Tips for High School Teachers

Encouraging students to read

Encouraging students to read has always been a challenge for me. But as an English language arts teacher for many years, I've learned a few tricks to help my students uncover the joys of reading for pleasure. I've discovered that encouraging them to read becomes much easier when I have the right books on hand. Here are some tips to help you encourage your high school students to embrace reading.

Remember That Everyone Loves a Mystery

I've always been passionate about sharing with my students the great happiness I get from reading. Once I heard a student say, "I hate reading," and it broke my heart. In order to inspire students to read, I decided to create an entire elective that focused on introducing students to how enjoyable reading can be. As I was planning, I thought back to when I was a teen and I recalled that I enjoyed reading a good mystery—one with an exciting and compelling plot. I stocked the mysteries elective with engaging short stories like Roald Dahl's "Lamb to the Slaughter" and Henry Slesar's "The Right Kind of House"—my students loved them!

When I chose books for the course, I initially looked to works by Agatha Christie and Dashiell Hammett, but they fell flat with my students, who simply couldn't relate to them. So I turned to young adult literature, choosing Edgar Award winners like The Killer's Cousin and quick, fun reads like The Babysitter. The books were a huge hit.

Stick with Classics That Work

Surprisingly, the most successful book on the list came from my days working as a secretary in a law firm in the 1980s. I remembered how the book See Jane Run by Joy Fielding whipped through the office. Every single person in the firm read it—lawyers, secretaries, support staff. So I found copies of the book on Amazon and purchased a class set, hoping it might be the one to get students engaged. I was right! One of my students, Jose, came to me after I gave him the book to tell me that he got in trouble for reading it in his math class. "I just couldn't put it down," he told me. I couldn't help but smile.

Another student, Jennifer, e-mailed me the minute she finished the book to thank me for introducing it to her. "It was a book that pulled me and sucked me into its world for hours, and it was a wonderful experience for me," she said. "I'm typing this a minute after finishing the book, so my emotions are still all over the place!" Word about See Jane Run spread around the school so quickly that soon students who weren't even in my class came to borrow the book. Teachers and staff soon followed. The sad footnote to this experience is that See Jane Run is now out of print, so I have to carefully hoard the copies I have!

Know What Boys Enjoy

For whatever reason, boys seem to be a tougher sell when it comes to reading for pleasure. I've always struggled with finding books that appeal to the male brain. But then I met Brandon. Brandon was always reading. He was also a football player, an AP student, and he was very popular. I decided to turn to him for help with encouraging my male students to read. "What books should I get? What books do boys like to read?" I asked him. Brandon explained the secret. "Most guys like to read about two things: sports and survival," he told me. "Get some books by Carl Deuker. Get some real-life survival stories. You'll be all set." His guidance worked wonders. I got those books, and sure enough, the boys devoured them.

Have Your Students Meet the Author

When I wanted my students to read nonfiction, I got Michael Patrick MacDonald's All Souls: A Family Story from Southie. Because the book is set in Boston—not far from our school—and because it focuses on issues including poverty, violence, racism, and substance abuse, it spoke to a lot of my students. However, the book was a challenging read for 15-year-olds, so I decided to do something special for my students. I contacted the author and brought him in to speak to my students. Meeting Michael Patrick MacDonald in person was an amazing experience—one students still talk about. Michael gave them great insight into his personal story as well as the writing process.

Give them a "Reading Check"

I've found that with my students, I sometimes have to hold them accountable for reading assignments. Sometimes I do that through an oral question-and-answer session, but most of the time I give them a "reading check," which goes beyond what can be found online or in SparkNotes. I ask students an interpretive or application question that requires them to think about what they read (and usually proves whether they did the reading). For example, when my students read Speak, a perennial favorite with both genders, I ask about the symbolism in the book and require students to cite specific ways the main character uses that symbolism to reflect on her experience.

In this day and age, with smartphones and social media, I believe it's more important than ever for teachers to continue encouraging students to read. Reading is a skill that transcends all disciplines, and it is valuable and necessary for a student to be truly college- and career-ready. But most importantly, students should see that reading can provide them great joy and pleasure. When Isabelle, a student in my sophomore class, told me, "Miss, I can't believe it, but you made a reader out of me," I smiled and said to myself, "Mission accomplished!"