Did you read the assigned reading?

This is the question that I am pondering today.  I experienced assigned or required reading as a secondary student.  I know there are students today who are also assigned reading.  But, what is the purpose of assigned reading?  More importantly, is there another way to motivate students to read without assigned reading?

Reflecting On My Experiences

So, what were my experiences with required reading?  As I talked about a few weeks ago, I read everything I was assigned (except The Scarlet Letter) for school.  Yet, some of the books we read didn’t quite make sense to me.  Smart student that I was, I dialed up AOL and supplemented my reading with Spark Notes. This was just expected procedure among us students in high school.

3006348550_1017d24be8_oI do remember one moment of questioning though.  As a Freshman, I was in a different English class from one of my best friends.  Her class read Animal Farm and my class did not.  I always wondered why we were not required to read this book.  And, why were they being taught Animal Farm?  Why did our teacher choose specific books for us?

A “Typical” English Class?

Is there a “typical” English class?  One that would be recognizable to all students across the country?  I think there is one – at least parts in each class across the country.

It seems that this typical class is assigned “classics”.  You know these – Scarlet Letter, Animal Farm, Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights.  I know that I struggled with these books about adults with adult problems!  I mean, how was I supposed to relate to the community that Dr. Frankenstein lived in?  How am I supposed to relate to it now, as an adult?

These “classics” are taught year after year in class after class to generations of students.  Why?  I think we were assigned to read them because they were deemed to be “classics”.  What made them classics?  Well, the fact that they are taught year after year in class after class to generations of students!  Everyone reads them, so why shouldn’t our teachers have us read them?

A Novel Idea – Penny Kittle

This week we explored the first couple of chapters of Penny Kittle’s Book Love.  In the book, Ms. Kittle explores the question of why students don’t read the assigned reading.  She also asks how students “pass the tests” without reading.

The short answer to these questions is:  they don’t read because it is boring or hard or doesn’t relate.  They pass the tests by getting notes from friends or from Spark Notes (or Wikipedia now).  And, isn’t that exactly what I did with The Scarlet Letter?

What would happen if we changed the way English is taught?  What if we focus instead on, as Penny Kittle suggests, building a reader’s stamina and volume with texts they are passionate about?

Crazy, right?

But maybe not.  Over the years she has asked her students about their reading habits.  This video shows just a few of her students’ reactions to her questions.  Her students in the video have read SO many pages and books – all because she lets them have choice in their independent reading.  CHOICE. There is even a student who says, “with the two I didn’t finish I still read…”  She didn’t finish a book and that was accepted.  Amazing!

Most of the students Kittle talks with find that they will read more if it is something they like or something they are passionate about.  Once we help students find the book that will be their forever friend, they will read it.  And the next one.  And the one after that.  And one about one of the issues.  And on and on until we have a capital R READER!

Classroom of the Future – of NOW.

I read a lot of good information this week.  So, how can I put it into use?  How can I create a classroom with students who read a vast volume of pages and books?  How can I match each kid with the book?  How can I teach them to analyze literature and teach the content I need to teach?

In my classroom, I will:

  • Help each student find their reading passion, whether it is National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, or Shakespeare
  • Encourage my students to read more than they ever had, read things they like, and talk about their reading
  • Teach the skills of literary analysis with in class books – where we can struggle with meaning together
  • Most importantly, I will GIVE THEM TIME TO READ.

What do you think?  Did you read all the required books?  How would you have changed your experiences in English class?  Let’s talk below….

10 thoughts on “Did you read the assigned reading?

  1. Your post foregrounds the really essential question: what is our purpose in assigning certain texts? The only argument I ever hear is the exposure argument. I had a principal once tell me that I needed to assign the classics because I was doing my students a disservice sending them off to college without the relevant cultural background knowledge they would need. I asked him if he could give me an example. He said, “What if they’re in a lecture and the professor references Moby Dick and they don’t know what he’s talking about?” Well, they could pull out their phone and Google it and understand! Or they could ASK. We can’t possibly prepare students for every passing literary reference that might be made–nor is that the purpose of English class! Nor is it the reason why we read.


    1. I really like the idea of doing different books in small groups (lit circles). Our 8th grade English teacher does Holocaust novels in Lit Circles each fall. It is one of those times where students learn to sink or swim together. More importantly, they have such small groups (3-4) that everyone participates in the dialogue. Who cares if the whole class doesn’t read The Diary of Anne Frank? Isn’t it more important for them to have a chance to respond to reading with their peers?
      Also, I NEVER read Moby Dick. I’d have to Google the reference too!


  2. What defines a classic? I personally love the classics but I would rather read them for fun then have assigned chapters and at the end of the book write a paper over some literary element. If students were assigned more contemporary books with issues they could connect with then I think more kids would actually read assigned books. The classics are great books but they were not written for 21st century teenagers.


    1. So very true. I think classics are those standard, older, (capital L) Literature. Frankenstein, Scarlet Letter, Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies….
      But they don’t speak to youth today. Or the teen I was in the 90s!


      1. I don’t think that it is only kids. We ALL want to have some connection to our reading! I think that is why the “classics” are so often left unread-kids don’t connect.


  3. My issue was always that there was an underlying tension present in every class even if we did complete the assigned reading. There was that expectation of the teacher asking us what we thought the reading was about and being worried about having a wrong answer if it was something we didn’t understand. This kept students from wanting to participate in class even if they had completed the reading outside of class or if the class completed it together during school time.


    1. I have certainly felt that tension as a teacher in the classroom, but don’t remember it as a student. Did your teachers has specific things they were looking for and not consider any others?
      How can we change this for our students?
      Thanks for sharing this!


  4. I was always a little surprised as a student when I found out friends from other classes/schools read different books too. None of it made any sense to me, but one thing was consistent, I never remember talking to any peer who enjoyed (if they actually read) the required reading.


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