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So your Students aren’t Reading? Here’s Help.

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Today on the podcast, we’re sitting down with Amanda Cardenas to talk about a very big question. A huge question, really. What can teachers do when students aren’t doing the reading? And is reading out loud the majority of our texts the answer? Spoiler alert, we both can completely understand how this would seem like the answer, but in the long run, we don’t think it is. 

Amanda and I are going to share a lot of ideas, and I’m hopeful that if you’ve been feeling stuck in a situation where kids aren’t reading and lessons aren’t working, you’ll find some helpful possibilities for shifts you might make to help. We’re getting into approaching unit design with an inquiry lens rather than a text-coverage lens, checking in with open-book Sesame Street quizzes, breaking up reading assignments in new ways, and planning the day-to-day of units without worrying about which exact pages students may have read the night before. It’s a lot of exciting stuff, so let’s dive in!

You can listen in to this episode below, click here to tune in on any podcast player, or read on for the full post.

What to Do When Students Aren’t Reading Assigned Texts

There’s a natural English teacher cycle of assigning reading, then doing things with it, assigning some reading, then doing some things with it…

But what happens when the students aren’t doing the reading? And lesson plans built on that very reading fall FLAT?

It’s easy to go into panic-mode. Perhaps you’ve been in this situation?

Many teachers have turned to read alouds in recent years, as students have struggled to return to their homework routines post-COVID. In some ways, it makes sense, fulfilling the need to make sure students have “experienced” a text.

The decision to read aloud – we know – comes from a good place. It feels like an equity move to make sure all students have equal access to the reading.

The problem? It comes at an incredible cost. Time. 

If the entire lesson – on many days – revolves around a long read aloud, students lose their access to other types of important activities, and opportunities to strengthen and practice their own reading independently.

Pivoting When Students Aren’t Reading: Strategies for Success

But what other options are there? Well, it turns out, quite a few!

At the end of the day, it’s important to consider, “What is the lesson really about?” Texts offer an opportunity to discuss big important ideas, and provide a vehicle for close reading, deep thinking, writing, and discussion.

If you really think about why you choose texts, it’s probably not for the plot.

Even with a broken understanding of the chapters at hand, students can generally still talk about the big, universal idea of the unit. They don’t necessarily have to “get” all aspects of the plot to be able to be a part of a discussion, writing challenge, or related multimedia activity.

Reading aloud to students is not bad. However, when we think about the developmental needs of our students, it’s so important to find time for activities that nurture critical thinking, analysis, synthesis, and upper level thinking skills (as well as real-world applications and work with authentic audiences).

To help make sure we’re getting to these higher-level thinking skills, let’s talk strategy.  

Strategy One: Change the Way You Assign Reading

If we assign chapters 1-3, then center the next day’s lesson around 1-3, it’s easy for that day’s lesson to fall flat because many students will not have read the text. Sound familiar?

Instead of assigning nightly reading, consider assigning larger chunks – high school students can generally handle 80-120 pages/week.

Amanda likes to assign reading from Monday to Monday. This gives students the front end of the week to get as much reading as they can get done in the evenings, or the small pockets of time in their days, but also a full weekend to tackle each chunk of assigned text.

Assigning text this way helps students understand the habits of a reader. They’ll learn how to use the pockets of time in their schedules to get their reading done.

It also gives them the opportunity to practice time management and the importance of setting their own schedule. You can absolutely walk them through how you might fit a chunk of reading like that into a week, or even, at first, help them make their own plans, which they can proceed with in a flexible way.

Once you’ve adjusted your reading schedule to a model like this, each day becomes less about “covering” the reading and more about choosing activities that reflect your overall learning goals, rooted in a slowly growing understanding of the meaning behind the book. Before we move on to those types of activities, let’s talk about how to follow your readers’ progress through these big chunks of reading.

Strategy Two: Check in with Open-Book Sesame Street Quizzes

Ever heard of the Sesame Street Quiz? It’s one of Amanda’s favorite assessments, and she suggests using it as a friendly check-in each Monday. Much more effective than a “gotcha”-style reading quiz, it allows you to see who is really understanding the reading and who is barely keeping up or not finding time to read.

Here’s how it works.

A Sesame Street Quiz gives students four items. Three are connected and one is an outlier. For example, if you’re reading Chapter 2 of The Great Gatsby, you might give students the options: Daisy, Jordan, floating, red. Which three are connected and why? Which one is the outlier and why? Amanda lets kids use their book and notes as they respond.

This type of “quiz” really gives the teacher a sense of whether students can put the pieces together. This is great information about what is “clicking” for the students and what to tackle the rest of the week through close reading and other activities.

Strategy Three: Lesson Ideas for the In-Between Days

With a revamped reading schedule and a creative way to check in with your readers in hand, it’s time to move on to building lessons that don’t rely on a certain span of pages each day.

Amanda suggests looking at your units in a fresh way, with an inquiry-focus.

Her units aren’t text-centered. They’re question-centered.

For example, instead of a unit on The Great Gatsby, she has a unit centered around the question “Is The American Dream More Likely to Inspire or Destroy Us?” The goal of the unit is to answer the question through reading and discussion of literature, non-fiction, poetry, and multimedia, not to “cover” the plot of Gatsby.

Throughout the week, her lessons address the Essential Question.

She might do a close reading of a scene from the text that helps to address the essential question. Another lesson might have students look at a poem to add a voice that’s missing from the text featured in the unit, and see what they can pull from the poem to help them find answers. There might be an argumentation lesson where students flip a coin and then debate a statement like “Daisy deserves the reader’s pity.” (Does the American Dream destroy Daisy?)

What matters for these lessons is that students have read something, not that they’ve read certain pages by a certain date. Amanda finds that these types of lessons generally galvanize students who are behind to want to catch-up (for the win!).

Why a New Approach if your students aren’t reading?

Reading aloud can be effective (even wonderful, you know I’m a big fan of First Chapter Friday), but Amanda and I want to challenge you to consider being selective about it.

Read smaller sections aloud to your students with a clear purpose. Pick the big, suspenseful or exciting sections together, and try other strategies for helping students engage with the overall unit at other times. Amanda has shared some wonderful ones today, and no doubt you’ve got many more up your sleeve once you shift away from that feeling of needing to cover reading each day.

There’s no doubt about it, English teachers are pressed for time. You have to teach reading (all of the genres), writing (all of the styles), research (all of the things)…and you only have so many hours. With strategies like these, we hope you feel more empowered to make the choice to use your time how you feel will best benefit your students. 

Connect with Amanda Cardenas of Mud & Ink Teaching

students aren't reading

Amanda is a creative whirlwind, with so many great ideas to share with you! Here’s how she describes herself on her website:

“I still remember the warmth and joy I felt daily walking into Mrs. Kramer’s 5th-grade classroom. She was the teacher I loved and the woman who inspired me to become a teacher: I knew that if I could spend my life creating a space for others to love learning as much as I did, I would be living my dream.

Many years later, here I am. After years of coursework, international travel, mentorship, and classroom experience, I’ve arrived at a place in my career where I’m ready and excited to share my experiences with other teachers. Here at Mud and Ink Teaching, I aim to inspire, educate, and support other teachers in their curriculum design experience and help improve their practice in the classroom.”

To learn more about Inquiry-based units, Sesame Street quizzes, and so much more, you can find Amanda’s wonderful work on Instagram , her website, and her podcast, Brave New Teaching.

You might also like Replacing Student Apathy with Purpose blog post.

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