Last week, I wrote about why students don’t read more. Today, I’m writing about why teachers don’t encourage their students to read more—because, of course, one of the main reasons why language students don’t read more is because of their teachers. Teachers often don’t encourage students to read a lot and/or don’t provide materials to students to allow them to do so.
We know that reading is extremely important for people in developing their literacy skills in both L1 and L2. We know that reading is an effective way to develop vocabulary and to acquire grammar. Almost all teachers know this. But yet, many teachers don’t prioritize it during class. And when they do have students read in class, it’s often intensive reading—in other words, they have students read a difficult text very closely and carefully, followed by lots of comprehension check questions and other activities. This means that even in a lesson that is supposedly focused on reading, students spend very little time actually reading. With extensive reading, on the other hand, students simply read whatever they want to and are not expected to read the text closely and analyze it. The text is at a level that they can read easily. That means that they can do a lot more reading in the same amount of time, and they are much more motivated to keep reading because it’s more enjoyable. But, unfortunately, expecting and encouraging students to read extensively seems to be pretty rare in most language classes.
In my first few years of teaching, I knew that reading was important, but I never really made a strong effort to encourage my students to read a lot and to read for fun. Sure, I had my students do the readings in their textbooks, and I would occasionally try to find some interesting articles for them to read in class, but that was about it.
So if we know that extensive reading is important, why don’t more teachers make it a priority?
Unfortunately, I think that a major part of the issue comes down to what makes the most money for publishing companies. It seems ridiculous that profit would be prioritized over students’ learning, but, sadly, it often is.
Paul Thomas, a Professor of Education at Furman University, recently wrote about this topic in his blog post “The Facts About Reading Just Don’t Matter.” He writes about how, despite the overwhelming research evidence in favor of extensive reading, our education system just doesn’t prioritize it. He writes:
“Education policy continues to march through a never-ending series of new reading programs, new reading standards, and new high-stakes reading tests (that have children perform in ways on the tests, brief passages with multiple choice questions, that are unlike real-world reading).
In 2017, then, it is stunning that a news article on reading research (from a publisher!) confirms—again—the facts we have known about reading for more than a century, but refuse [to] acknowledge and practice.
The problem is what we know about reading and fostering literacy in children and young adults just isn’t that sexy (or profitable for politicians and publisher/testing companies): access to books in the home and libraries (community and school) and choice in what is read are strongly correlated with reading ability and eagerness.
Not phonics programs, reading programs, standards, or high-stakes testing.
Access to books and choice. Period.”
And reading expert Richard L. Allington mentions a lot of the same problems in his article “Proven Programs, Profits, and Practice.” He lists ten teaching practices that have been strongly supported through research but that are not mentioned or used as often as they should be simply because they do not make a profit for publishers. As Allington says, “Profitable programs continue to trump scientific evidence” (p. 227).
The publishing companies want to convince us that we need their intensive reading programs in order for our students to succeed. And politicians like to talk about “accountability” and “high standards” because it makes it sound like they are being tough on low-performing schools. And some teachers and administrators buy into these ideas because having students do intensive reading seems more “rigorous,” which seems like it must be better for our students. We have trouble believing that something as simple and enjoyable as extensive reading could actually be beneficial.
In addition, it seems that many teachers think of extensive reading as a supplemental activity. As soon as teachers are handed a textbook to use in their class, they often tend to treat it as the most important thing. They think that the textbook is what our students need to do; anything else is just extra, and we try to make it fit where it can. That’s how I used to be—for my first four years of teaching, I mostly just followed a textbook, page by page. It never occurred to me to question whether or not the textbook was the best thing for my students or whether it had been informed at all by research on second language acquisition. I just assumed it was.
When I told one of my colleagues about my FVR (Free Voluntary Reading) library, he said that it sounded like a good idea but that he felt like he didn’t really have time to do that with his students along with “all the other things we need to do.” I think he was primarily referring to the textbook—that he felt like he needed to get through the units in the textbook he was supposed to do, and he didn’t have much time for “extras” like free voluntary reading.
From my perspective, however, free voluntary reading isn’t just an “extra” thing. It is one of the most important things we can do in class—much more important than marching through the pages of a textbook. There is so much research showing the effectiveness of extensive reading, while I don’t know of any research showing that textbooks are an effective way for people to learn a language. (In fact, many textbooks completely ignore a lot of the research evidence on second language acquisition. But that’s a topic for another day!)
Teachers also face the challenge of how to implement an FVR library or any other kind of extensive reading program. There are some teachers who truly want to give their students choice in what they read, but it’s very difficult to do so without support from administrators. Giving students access to books requires money to buy the books, and, unfortunately, some administrators don’t see the value in extensive reading and aren’t willing to invest in books for a library.
There are many challenges to overcome, but I hope that, with time, more and more teachers and administrators will come to see just how important it is to give students access to books and to give them choice in what they want to read.