English language arts teachers are faced with a myriad of challenging tasks, from critical literacy skills to grammatical understanding. A unique, yet equally difficult, undertaking involves motivating our students to read, which is complicated even further as students enter adolescence. By the middle grades, those students who have been consistently reluctant as readers often view reading as unimportant (Willingham, 2015). Many students at this stage have experienced only ‘academic’ reading, where everything from the reading materials to the discussion questions is provided or outlined specifically for them. When we do this, students become less motivated to read and often abandon reading altogether for other, infinitely more interesting, hobbies (Willingham, 2015).
To combat the negative attitudes adolescents have about reading, we have to consider the vitalities of an engaging reading model for middle school students. We have to consider our audience. The focus for middle school language arts teachers must be on helping their students discover the joys of reading and talking about books. We can do this by considering the kids themselves and fostering a reading community that capitalizes on adolescent interest and nature.
Socializing in the Classroom
We all know our kids like to talk. A lot. Discussions are used by teachers to increase communication among their students about books, and they often provide room for students to recommend books to one another. Moreover, discussions about books can be a platform for students to consider multiple perspectives and viewpoints, especially when they are authentic and organic. While some students need instruction on how to participate in a discussion about a book, the majority of teens are hypersocial as it is and are highly capable of jumping right in. By questioning and sharing opinions, students begin to delve deeper into the text and are often required to support their findings with evidence, not because we are telling them to, but because their peers want examples. The most compelling reason to look back in the text is when they are locked in a disagreement, and it is usually when I see my students using the most specific, supportive textual evidence. Traditionally, the nature of classroom discussions has been structured and teacher-centered. Thankfully, we are moving away from this practice because students report that they prefer an approach where they are in the driver’s seat (Falter Thomas, 2014; Certo et al., 2010).
Community & Belonging
It is no surprise to educators, especially those of us who work with middle and high schoolers, but adolescents like working with their peers. Feeling as though they have a place is highly important to them, as it is to all of us. A classroom reading community allows them to experience a sense of belonging through discussion, book recommendations, and group response tasks. Through these aspects, students feel an increased sense of value as a member of classroom community or small group. This feeling increases their motivation—when they know they have a group to share the experience with, they actually want to keep reading. In a case study done with middle schoolers, the students themselves indicated the importance of relationships for engaged reading (Ivey & Johnston, 2013). As social creatures, the relationship aspect of reading is vital to teens’ engagement with literature. Participating in a small group provides students with an authentic audience for their thoughts, ideas, and connections. The knowledge that their peers are listening to their input and responding to it is another factor that really increases their motivation to read. They experience feelings of trust and belonging, which shows them how reading can b an enjoyable, even social, activity.
Arguably the most important component to an effective reading instruction model for middle schoolers is the inclusion of student choice. Choice is highly correlated to motivation, as it increases the likelihood that students will develop meaningful connections to the text (Falter Thomas, 2012; Willingham, 2015). Adolescents need choice in the books they read, as well as the freedom to choose how they will respond. When allowed to choose their own books and activities, students feel an increased sense of ownership and will often show higher proficiency because they select activities that play to their strengths (Falter Thomas 2012). With the wide variety of literature available, many subjects are covered by middle grade and young adult novelists. Students often choose novels that are reflective of their personal challenges, and when combined with the ability to share these connections with peers, students are consumed by the desire to keep reading. They have meaningful and relevant conversations. They want to talk to one another during class and actually stay on topic. They want to read. And if we keep that up, they may even become lifelong lovers of literature.
Certo, J., Moxley, K., Reffitt, K., & Miller, J.A. (2010). I learned how to talk about a book: Children’s perceptions of literature circles across grade and ability levels. Literacy Research and Instruction, 49(3), 243-263. doi.10.1080/19388080902947352.
Falter Thomas, A. (2012). The effects of implementing a reading workshop in middle school language arts classrooms. Journal of Instructional Pedagogies, 9, 1-16. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1097125.pdf.
Falter Thomas, A. (2014). An action research study involving motivating middle school students’ learning through online literature circles. Journal of Ethnographic & Qualitative Research, 9(1), 44-54. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1064067.
Ivey, G., & Johnston, P.H. (2013). Engagement with young adult literature: Outcomes and processes. Reading Research Quarterly, 48(3), 255-275. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43497622.
Willingham, D.T. (2015). For the love of reading: Engaging students in a lifelong pursuit. American Educator, 39(1), 4-13. Retrieved from http://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/ae_spring2015.pdf.