The second time I spotted a cell phone tucked inside a copy of the class novel within one week, I knew I was not exactly witnessing a rare unicorn. Fake reading, even blatant Instagram swiping instead of Dickens analyzing, was no singular oddity. It was more like an invasive species. Working with middle and high school English teachers across the country and hearing so many bemoan this crisis, then seeing it over and over again myself, I pictured fake reading like rapidly spreading bacteria, damaging the health of students everywhere.
What can be done to stop the crisis of fake reading? And how do we honor the needs and desires of both teachers and students in the process?
The class novel is not working, and yet it doesn’t make sense to throw it out the window, either. English teachers want their students to know and understand classic literature. They aren’t comfortable abandoning their margin-filled, dog-eared copies of the class novel, even if many students aren’t reading them. Students deserve access to these books. English class is one of the last chances to expose them to rich literature. I understand it when teachers say knowing the classics is cultural capital, and that their students have a right to that knowledge.
But students aren’t gravitating toward or enjoying the class novels. They want to read books they’re interested in, with characters and problems they care about. They want books they can feel good at reading, too, not texts that confuse or intimidate them. Dickens, Hawthorne, and Chaucer are unlikely to lure in the non-reader. Not to mention, college will demand that students can read at high volumes. One book a marking period, even if students were reading them, isn’t enough to build the reading stamina they’ll need to succeed.
The answer is taking the best of class novels and choice reading.
Keep the rich literature. Just don’t expect students to read it cover to cover, which they weren’t doing anyway. Use excerpts to model the work of strong readers, thereby exposing students to the books teachers love and exposing how to navigate complex texts.
Then bring in choice reading. Let students try those same moves of skilled readers in books they want to read. Choice reading has the amazing ability to turn non-readers into readers. From schools where most students read well below grade level, to competitive schools of high-achievers, choice reading produces authentic readers.
I read much more because I am able to pick books I understand and connect to. Being able to choose has made me look forward to reading whereas before I dreaded it. Jolie Sheerin, high school student
When I do enjoy the book, I can finish it in a matter of days. And sometimes I’ll read it over and over again, just to be able to relive my favorite moments in the book. Adideb Nag, high school student
I discovered that I’m actually an avid reader. I just need to have a novel that I like to read. Suchita Kanala, high school student
I read more now that I choose an independent book. Now, I am more interested in the story. Before I would never be excited to pick up the class book because I wasn’t intrigued. Miranda Maley, high school student
The final and most important benefit of blending the class novel with choice reading is that students transfer reading skills to books they chose. After seeing the teacher model a reading skill in the class novel, such as determining theme or analyzing author’s craft, students apply that same skill to their own book. This transfer of skills—according to Hattie, Fisher, and Frey—is one of the highest levels of learning. Teachers don’t need a pop quiz or turnitin.com to figure out whether students are really reading or whether students can do the work of complex readers. The proof is right there, when students transfer skills and show the work in books they want to read.
We can all agree on this: we want students to put down the phone, to stop SparkNoting, and to start to read. We want them to appreciate literature and be able to do the work of skilled readers. But most of all, we want them to be readers. So keep that copy of Great Expectations, Things Fall Apart, The Outsiders, Their Eyes Were Watching God, or Night. Open up the door to choice reading. And hopefully, put an end to the invasive species of fake reading.