Papers & Essays

Why Not Read?

While many of our students are fluent in their oral and aural English skills, a surprising number of them have reading comprehension skills that are not as sophisticated as their speaking and listening. Some, while having near-native abilities, have never actually read a novel cover to cover. Though this situation may be a result of missed opportunities, the teacher begins to be concerned that the student may have labeled him or herself a non-reader.

Whether you are an adult or a student, you generally do something either because you have to (or "should") or because you enjoy it. Most of us realize that if we do something because we enjoy it, we are more likely to learn and retain knowledge or skills associated with the activity.

Enjoyment is the essential point of the Free Reading Class project. Students are to enjoy their English reading. If they do not like a book they have started, they are to stop reading it and find something else. They are allowed to read below their "level"; these books are called "Holiday" books, and while the level of what makes a book "easy" varies with each student, the freedom to choose such books for this assignment creates an environment where they can be honest about their evaluation of the book's difficulty. Students can also read books at the "Just Right" or "Challenge" levels. These are also terms defined by Nancie Atwell in her book The Reading Zone: How to Help Kids Become Skilled, Passionate, Habitual, Critical Readers.


What to Read

One of the first steps to setting up a Free Reading Class was to establish a library. Of course, Doshisha International has a fabulous library with materials in Japanese, English, and other languages. Many of the English titles I chose myself, so I can hardly complain about the quality or student interest. My objective was to have a smaller collection from which I could select titles to take to the classroom for students who forgot their books on reading days. The result, however, was much greater than my expectation. Initially, part of the success seemed to be the "less is more" phenomenon; students seemed to have an easier time choosing a book from the limited number of titles that would fit in a book bag (about fifteen) than from the entire library. Although there was a bit of reluctance at first to borrow something from the teacher, curiosity and practicality soon overcame any hesitation, and I found that during the part of the class when I invited students to choose a book from the bag I would be mobbed with eager borrowers.

The book bag was so popular, that even when we had class in the library I would take it. I put it on a counter at the back of the area where our class was and let students go over and browse freely as they found a break in their other work for my class. I asked some who had selected books about their reasons for choosing from the bag when there was a library full of many more choices surrounding them! Some answered practically that they had forgotten their library card, but others cited a recommendation by a friend that they knew was in our class collection. One simply said that it was "easier to find a good book" using the book bag. Again, with a smaller number of books that have already been pre-selected specifically for the students in the class, students feel it is easier to find something they will enjoy.


Sample Titles

I have two bags, one for each of two slightly different levels of classes, but when I purposely brought the other class's bag one day, the slight change created so much excitement that I switch bags periodically now. Here is a list of titles that were in the bag one day this past term. The range of reading levels represented reflects the range of abilities of students in the class:

  1. Speak, about an adolescent girl who stops talking after a traumatic incident
  2. The Tale of Despereaux, the adventures of a mouse
  3. Fahrenheit 451, a classic
  4. Rules, about a teenager with an autistic sibiling
  5. Matilda, by the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
  6. Among the Hidden, from the Shadow Children series
  7. Cracker! The Best Dog in Vietnam, a war story
  8. One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies, written in free-verse
  9. Howl's Moving Castle, the English version of the popular movie
  10. Breaking Back, the memoir of a tennis star, his struggles with injuries and racism
  11. My Humorous Japan, short essays on life in Japan by a British writer
  12. Lawn Boy, a lesson in economics presented as one boy's summer vacation
  13. Because of Winn-Dixie, a heart-warming story of a girl and her dog
  14. Whirligig, cross-country travel gives a young man much-needed human contact
  15. Dexter the Tough, a boy acts tough to hide his pain and fear but gets help

This list is only one example of what might be in the book bag on a single day. A range of titles that includes books for a variety of reading levels and interests within the very limited number of books is the objective. I am always careful to include several "boy" books; researchers note that both girls and boys will be attracted to books with male protagonists, but more often than not books about a girl or young woman will not be appealing to boys. While the feminist in me balks at this disparity, my primary objective is to interest the students.


Are They Reading?

While it is clear that many students read willingly, since I only see my classes twice a week - reduced to once if there is a school event or holiday - just letting them go with books they like may not be enough to get them in the habit of reading regularly. They are required to read their books four or five times a week. As a check, after reading for twenty to thirty minutes, students write a two or three line summary of what they read, list a few new words or interesting phrases they found, and jot down a line or two on what they thought about the reading. Ideally, this should only take them about five minutes, keeping the emphasis on the reading rather than the writing. They do write longer book "recommendations" periodically, but these are essentially as a resource for other students, to help them find books that they will enjoy reading.

Atwell has students engage in reading for her classes with even more freedom than in the classes described here. While Atwell expects her students to read at home on a daily basis (that is, daily "homework"), there is no daily confirmation for them to complete. Reading Atwell's description of her curriculum and classroom, it is easy to believe that the vast majority of students not only willingly do their daily reading but probably look forward to doing this homework. Imagine if we could create all our classes this way! No daily check is necessary because students are doing what they want to do.


Perceived Problems

Interestingly, this approach has no serious flaws. Frankly, when I first imagined this class, with students reading whatever book they want in what is essentially an unstructured atmosphere, I foresaw all sorts of problems virtually none of which have materialized.

However, I was not alone in my discomfort with giving the students so much freedom, and the discomfort of adults has turned out to be one of our major obstacles.

My greatest concern was with the perception of parents whose children were involved in the project. Having students choose books that parents see as inappropriate because of level or content was a potential pitfall. Additionally, many parents are concerned when they feel that their child's coursework is not rigorous enough. To try to stave off these difficulties, I sent a letter home during the first few weeks of school explaining the reading that students would do for class, and then followed up with a short blurb in the class newsletter asking parents to make sure their child had a good place to read with sufficient light and free from disturbances. Involving parents in a positive way often reassures them.


Specific Concerns

Rereading is an important process and essential skill for studying or analyzing a text in depth. Yet when one student chose to reread a book he had finished a number of years before when he lived in the States, his mother was concerned that he was not doing his homework. She suggested that he was just writing down what he remembered from his first reading of the book.

That a student would voluntarily elect to reread a book is something that needs to be praised. Yet if we take the stance that we have to police students, that students will take "the easy way out" if they can possibly find one, we may well fall into this trap of negative thinking regarding their best efforts.

If the students truly enjoy the assignment - as is my main object here - there will be no problem with them not doing it and such concerns will abate. In individual interviews with students during class time, we discuss the book being read, whether it is interesting and if the level is right, and also plans for further reading if they are nearing the end of their current selection. This casual monitoring is sufficient to keep everyone on track.

Another serious concern arose from a non-language teacher who was a student's homeroom teacher. His opinion was that the entire concept makes it too easy for students to "cheat," that they would simply copy entries from another student's work. Again, if the student can be enabled to find a material he or she is enthusiastic about reading, that person will not be motivated to "not read".


Choosing Titles

So how does one go about finding these books that are so wonderful to read that students will look forward to doing their homework? Happily, many of the suggestions are now coming from students themselves. Sometimes they want more books in the same series as a favorite, like the young man who asked me for more Lionboy books. Others will ask for more by a specific author, like the student who enjoyed Sonya Sones. Still others will say that they loved the Cherub books; are there any others like this series? Students get recommendations from each other; one class activity has students talk in pairs or small groups for a minute or two about what they are reading currently or a past favorite. Yet how can a teacher preparing for such a class begin to gather the books that will make the cornerstone for such a collection?

An invaluable resource for us initially was The Horn Book periodical, one of the mainstays of librarians involved in English acquisitions. A brief summary of various titles for children and young adults, along with critique, appropriate age level, length, and other essential information helps us keep pace with new publications. Reading lists from Stateside public education entities as well as private schools helps maintain a "tried and true" presence. Internet addresses for ones that I refer to most often appear at the end of this article, as does the access information for Atwood's own students' lists that also gave us good input.

Students tend to lose things. This is a fact of life when you are young. Hopefully, the Free Reading Class will help them keep their English reading fluency while also instilling in them a lifelong love of reading.


References

Atwell, Nancie. The Reading Zone: How to Help Kids Become Skilled Passionate, Habitual, Critical Readers. New York: Scholastic, 2007.

Center for Teaching and Learning. "Kids Recommend." Center for Teaching and Learning Web Page.
http://www.c-t-l.org/kids_recommend.html (August 18, 2009).

Dana Hall School. "Summer Reading Lists." Dana Hall School・Helen Temple Cooke Library, Finding Your Way Web Page.
 (August 5, 2009).

The Horn Book, Inc. The Horn Book Magazine. Boston: The Horn Book, Inc. Published six times yearly.

Houston Area Independent Schools Library Network. "Recommended Reading Lists for Preschool - 12th Grade Students." Houston Area Independent Schools Library Network Web Page.
http://www.haisln.org/recommendedreadinglists.html (August 5, 2009).

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Sarah Ogawa

Sarah Wittenbrink Ogawa first came to Japan in high school as a short-term exchange student. After spending her junior year of college at Doshisha University, she returned to graduate from Smith College in Massachusetts. She moved back to Japan in 1992, where she has worked at a number of schools and in television. She is a faculty member at Doshisha International High School in Kyoto, where she lives with her Japanese husband and their two children. She has done graduate work in both science and the humanities, and holds a Master's Degree from the University of California.
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