When teachers familiarize themselves with students’ reading histories, they may uncover reading trauma — moments when students had a negative experience with a peer, teacher or librarian that turned them off of reading. Students with reading trauma associate reading with painful feelings of shame or stress and doubt their reading abilities, said Boston-based educator Kimberly Parker in a recent webinar organized by the Texas A&M Collaborative for Teacher Education.
Take reading logs, for example. Asking students to track at-home reading can make exploring books seem like a chore. And students with incomplete reading logs can learn to associate reading with penalization. A 2012 study found that reading logs led to less motivation and less interest in recreational reading. “It actually drives students further away from reading,” said Parker, who wrote “Literacy is Liberation: Working Towards Justice Through Culturally Relevant Teaching” and has spent over 20 years working in literacy communities.
Another practice that can lead to reading trauma is when teachers refer to students by their reading level. Reading level measurements, such as The Lexile Framework, should only apply to the texts students read and not to the students themselves, Parker said. “We get in trouble when we say that a kid is a ‘Lexile x’ or an ‘840,’” she noted. “Children are not levels.” Also, when teachers designate reading levels to students, kids may feel limited to only reading books with that designation.
In the Texas A&M Collaborative webinar, Parker shared strategies for how teachers can embrace students’ multifaceted reading lives and help them build positive relationships with reading. “They are more than their trauma,” she said. “If we just see them for their trauma, particularly for their reading trauma, then we miss so much.”
Vary text levels
Parker encouraged teachers to consider whether their go-to reading practices are guided by humanizing, asset-based research. For example, some teachers believe if reading is too easy or too hard, students won’t learn. However, research shows that when teachers only assign books that match a child’s reading level or teach to the lowest performing readers, they limit students’ exposure to different texts and reduce their opportunities to advance their reading abilities.
Texts should vary in difficulty and length, Parker said, pulling from work by literacy researcher Tim Shanahan. “The difficulty level should go up and down,” she said. “But the average difficulty over time should climb.” When text levels vary, all kids benefit from challenging reading materials and students are less likely to think their teachers have low expectations of their abilities. “Students tend to live up to the self-fulfilling prophecies that their teachers establish for them. And so if we don’t think that they’re going to be readers or that they can read or that they should read books that are all about diverse text at all levels, then they won’t,” Parker said.
Gives students time to read books they choose
Independent reading during the school day gives students an opportunity to strengthen their reading skills with minimal pressure. Providing regular reading time may seem simple but research shows that many core reading programs only include seven to 15 minutes of actual reading. When she was a classroom teacher, Parker dedicated the first 20 minutes of every class to students reading books of their choosing. “It was a protected time to help them develop a love of reading,” said Parker. She recommended that teachers across all grade levels establish routine independent reading time for their students. “Independent reading develops fluency, builds vocabulary and knowledge of text structures, and offers readers the experiences they need to read and construct meaning,” she said.
Even when schools require specific texts in the curriculum, Parker said that all other books that students read throughout the year should be “self-selected and of high interest to the reader.” Research shows that when students can choose their books, reading engagement grows.
She urged teachers to be “book detectives” and use interest surveys to find out what topics capture their students’ interest. Language arts teacher Donalyn Miller suggests survey questions like “What is your first choice about what to do when you have free time at home?” and “What kinds of things have you collected?” to identify the topics and interests that motivate students who may not see themselves as readers.
Recognize that students are already readers
Kids read all the time, even if it’s not something adults deem valuable, Parker said. “They might be reading, for example, anime or manga. They might be reading graphic novels. They might be reading blog posts, Instagram posts and things on TikTok.” She encourages teachers and parents to work with kids and not against them when it comes to choosing reading materials. “Text should be broadly viewed to include print, digital and visual media,” she said.
Giving kids access to a broad variety of texts in different formats may help engage reluctant readers. Before discouraging certain texts, teachers and parents can pause to ask themselves what is guiding their decision to steer a kid away from that particular text. “Because you never know what book is going to turn some child into a reader,” said Parker.