Wednesday / May 29

Want to Engage Teens? Let Books Do the Work.

Do you have a lurking suspicion that you are working harder than your students?

Do you pore through Pinterest and TeachersPayTeachers, looking for a magic lesson that will engage your kids?

Well, stop. There’s a simple fix I’ll get to in a sec. First, let’s be clear on what that elusive goal of “engagement” is all about.

Here’s what engagement is not:  

  1. Teachers who are entertaining all the time. Being “engaging” is exhausting, and it is not helping our kids. Save entertainment for Netflix.
  2. A temporary fix with a high interest activity. Socratic soccer balls, movie posters for the book, Shakespearean curses might grab students’ interest, for the moment. But we need long-term, routine practices that hold our students. Every one.

Here’s what engagement is:

Engagement is doing. Think of anything you learned to do: walking, riding a bike, swimming, making out, driving a car, tweeting. You learned by doing it (not particularly well), getting some pointers, trying again, improving a bit, and eventually, getting it right.

In many English classes, students aren’t getting it (evaluating text evidence/analyzing symbolism in The Great Gatsby/tracking character change in Hamlet) because they’re not at step one of engagement: the doing.

By doing, I mean reading. They’re not reading at home, and not in class. And no, a popcorn read aloud, chapter by chapter, of The Lord of the Flies, with the movie as a carrot at the end, is not the reading I mean. That’s exhausting ourselves to get students to semi-engage at best.

Why we still try to engage readers with the class novel:

I know why we’re not pushing them to read beyond the class novel in class. I mean, why spend time reading when they can do that home? Except they’re not reading at home. Heck, many of us aren’t reading at home.

The class novel worked for us. We made it, and now we’re English teachers! But somewhere along the line we learned to love books. And my hunch is a love of reading didn’t get jumpstarted with citing text evidence from Death of a Salesman.

We plan lessons around the reading, not the reading itself, because middle and high school students know how to read. We can skip that and get right to comparing and contrasting themes in The Odyssey and Antigone. And how’s that working out for us?

While it’s tempting to blame iPhones, kids these days, last years’ teachers, or nonexistent attention spans, blaming those things isn’t turning anyone into an engaged reader.

What to do instead:

Let’s go for the essential component of engagement right here, right now. Make reading our new non-negotiable. And guess what? Engaging readers is doable. It’s meaningful. It’s setting up a generation of empowered citizens. And it’s not exhausting ourselves in the process.

Here’s what students need to engage in reading*:

  1. A book they want to and can read.
  2. Time to read it. Every day.

Here’s just a few reasons why students need to engage in reading:

  1. The more students read, the better readers they are. And it doesn’t matter what they read.
  2. 90% of data in the world was created in the last two years. In one minute, Google concocts almost four million searches. If we want to graduate citizens of the world, students need to be readers who can engage in the information exploding all around us.
  3. College students need to read hundreds of pages every week. Our kids won’t be good at this if they’re not reading now. Weak readers tend not to graduate, but they’ll still have the debt, about 31k on average. So, get them reading.
  4. Employers look for, above all else, reading and writing skills in future employees. I can live with myself if students forget iambic pentameter, but I can’t live with myself if they’re non-employable. See #1. Get them reading.

It’s time to ditch any model that assumes teens are reading and therefore good at it. The only way teens will learn to be expert readers is by doing the thing we want them to be expert at: reading. And they need to do it a lot. This is actually an easy fix. Why are we complicating or avoiding it?

So, let’s engage students in reading by reading. Right now.

10 minutes every day. No excuses.

For the doubters:

 ‘Wait, students are going to sit in class and… read? Just, nose in a book read?’ Yup. That’s it. That’s engagement.

‘But what about the classics?’ Keep them. But keep less time for them. Make time for reading what they want to read.

‘It doesn’t feel quite this simple.’ Ok, I’ll give you this one. A bit. Getting every student engaged in real, consistent reading might not happen overnight. There are tips for making this happen, but I’ve got to sell this concept before you have to go grade and make dinner. If you’re ready to go for engaged readers, get easy-to-implement steps in No More Fake Reading by Berit Gordon.

‘This still feels unnecessary.’ Consider the now obsolete headphone jack on the iPhone. Remember we freaked out a bit about that too?

Stop resisting change. Go for it.

Spending six (ahem, ten) weeks on Great Expectations is not just the headphone jack on the iPhone. It’s the Atari, the fax machine, the typewriter, the telegram of no longer relevant practices because it’s not turning teens into readers.

So dive in. Upgrade to the new model. Ditch the idea that we’ll create literate students through fake reading. Get off Pinterest. Block TeachersPayTeachers. Shred lessons designed to eek out a smidge of interest in your reluctant readers. Put books in their hands instead.

When you look out over your class of readers, listening to pages turning, you’ll see what real engagement looks like.

Then, with all the time you save on Pinterest, go enjoy a good book.


Written by

Berit Gordon coaches teachers as they nurture lifelong readers and writers. Her path as an educator began in the classroom in the Dominican Republic before teaching in New York City public schools. She also taught at the Teachers College of Columbia University in English Education. She current works as a literacy consultant in grades 3-12 and lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and three children. She is the author of No More Fake Reading. You can find more information about Berit’s work on

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