by Bethany Johnsen
There is no shortage of hand-wringing articles about the decline of reading among young people (I know because I read them all, wringing my hands throughout), and the most commonly cited culprit is the proliferation of other media, with its consequent noise and distraction. Why would kids read a book when they could watch television, movies, or YouTube videos, surf the Internet, text friends, play games on any number of devices—in short, more entertainment options than have been available to any other generation?
Compelling as this sounds, eighth-grade English teacher Ariel Sacks has a different theory. She suggests—in a new book, as well in her recent blog post and older Education Week article—that classrooms come between students and their natural love of stories by emphasizing reading strategy and textual analysis over the immersive experience. She compares traditional English-class reading assignments to sitting in a movie theater in which the film is paused every few minutes for someone to ask comprehension questions of the audience. The analogy resonates with me because of a recent conversation I had with my 16-year-old sister about how she was enjoying her assigned novel, The Old Man and the Sea. “It’s hard for me to get into it,” she said, “because I keep having to put it down to make my close-reading notes. I want to just read the whole thing, but if I don’t do the homework as soon as I have an idea, then I’ll forget.” I understood her frustration—I’d been given the same task when I was in school.
Letting students “just read the whole thing” is at the heart of Sacks’ whole novel approach, which she recommends for struggling and reluctant readers as well as those like my sister who already enjoy literature. You can learn more about this teaching strategy in the free excerpt from Sacks’ book available on MiddleWeb.