How Can We Encourage More Students to Read?

One of my goals at the Wide Open Research blog is to help promote a deep passion for learning, with reading being the essential skill at the core of all learning.

When one reviews  the myriad 21st century skills such as creativity, flexibility, critical thinking, media literacy, etc.-skills that will enable individuals to thrive in the evolving world, surely reading and learning are the bedrock.

But reading is a skill that we often take for granted. It is a skill that we often assume is being taught and learned in our secondary classrooms, but rarely is. In my experience in education, most textbook assignments focus on locating information, NOT reading; with students skimming pages of text in order to copy the word or phrase that answers the question. It is not reading. For a great article on reading in America’s schools, please read the article by Natalie Wexler at The Atlantic

Many students, especially less wealthy students lack the background knowledge and vocabulary to comprehend challenging texts. Plus, students just don’t see the relevance in what they are learning. Why do I need to learn about the parts of a cell? Why do I need to learn about the Babylonians? Why do I need to know what an epiphany is? They fail to see the real-world connections. Bill Daggett has been teaching about the need for educators to connect the classroom to the world beyond through his Rigor and Relevance framework for over 20 years.

Does it matter that students don’t read deeply and widely? I think so.

In a must-read article, please read about Dr. Jean Twenge’s research which shows that only 20% of students read a book or magazine on any given day, but 80% say they use social media everyday.  The research shows this is a decline over the past several decades.

Dr. Twenge thinks it matters too:

“There’s no lack of intelligence among young people, but they do have less experience focusing for longer periods of time and reading long-form text, “ she said. “Being able to read long-form text is crucial for understanding complex issues and developing critical thinking skills. Democracies need informed voters and involved citizens who can think through issues, and that might be more difficult for people of all ages now that online information is the norm.”

One of the most prescient books that imagines a dystopian future where reading has been destroyed by an endless cornucopia of information is the novel Feed by N.T. Anderson. If you haven’t read it, do yourself a favor and read it this year. Essentially, in the future Anderson imagines, the internet is wired directly to people’s brains. Initially this enhancement I am sure had noble purposes, but in the end…

As we wrap up this year and embark on the next, ask yourself, are we making better decisions about the complicated, challenging and existential threats to our civilization, or are we not? Are we helping our students and children to think beyond the perpetual feed of sensationalized or trivial information and to contemplate hopeful futures?

With this blog, I curate and craft articles about university level research-a real world application of what students learn in school and which exemplify the hopeful arc of human enterprise. I include with each article, questions for discussion that could be used for bellwork, guided reading, silent reading, etc. in an effort to help our most underserved students develop more background knowledge about their classroom content and to help answer the question, “Why do I need to know this?”  Most importantly, the articles are chosen to inspire educators to help promote reading, curiosity and a passion for learning with their students.

I don’t pretend that simply reading a news article or my paltry efforts with this blog will be the solution to all of our world’s problems.

But by thinking about this issue and working together I know together we can achieve amazing things.

Enjoy the gift of expanding your mind through reading. It might change your life. I know it’s changed mine. To think that only one of my grandparents earned a high school diploma, and in the span of just two generations, I have earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree and have the gift of an amazing quality of life. Reading has been the key that has opened the door to a life of many gifts, for which I am grateful for every day.

So, what to do?

There is some teacher you know in some classroom in the disaffected suburbs, the disconnected rural town, or the disenfranchised urban center who needs your help in inspiring the next generation of readers. There is some student who has the yearning to learn, but is bored senseless by the banal summaries in their textbook and skimming quickly for the answer to  questions as they sit in the cafeteria or have a video blaring on one of the three screens they have up.

One solution: I invite all educators and parents to take the “1,000 Words Pledge.” Quite simply, read with your students and teens at least 1,000 extra words a day. There is no scientific backing for 1,000 extra words per day, no guarantee of raising test scores, or getting into the college of their choice. It’s just a brainstorm, a foolish whim, a windmill to tilt at-but I doubt that 1,000 extra words would be painful or impossible. Just read more.  Read better. Read together, read out loud, read slowly. Discuss, analyze, contemplate. But read.

At the very least, will you reach out and help them remember the magic of the written word and the demanding, yet ultimately fulfilling endeavor- reading?

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What are several 21st century skills the author mentions?
  2. Why is background knowledge important in reading?
  3. What were some results of Dr. Twenge’s research?
  4. What question would you ask Dr. Twenge about her research?
  5. What does the word “paltry” mean?
  6. What is your own experience with reading- what helped you learn to read? Why are you a voracious reader?
  7. Reading is a challenging, cognitively complex task that to do well is time-consuming and difficult. In the age of internet searches, podcasts and video demonstrations- is reading still an important skill?


Please contact me with your stories or thoughts about this topic, I’d love to hear your insights.

Please consider sharing this with any educators or parents you know!

Best wishes in the New Year!




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