How to create kids who hate to read

We’re Teaching Books That Don’t Stack Up, writes Nancy Schnog, a private school English teacher, in the Washington Post. High school reading lists ignore teens’ tastes and maturity levels, she writes. Students decide that literature is a bore.

It’s hard to forget my son’s summer-reading assignment the year before he entered ninth grade: Julia Alvarez’s “How the García Girls Lost Their Accents.” Try as he did, he never got beyond the first of 15 vignettes about four culturally displaced sisters who search for identity through therapists and mental illness, men and sex, drugs and alcohol. I could hardly blame him. We ask 14-year-old boys to read novels about the travails of anguished women and want them to develop a love of reading?

Her male students beg for less emotions, more plot.

About Joanne


  1. One of our female English teachers had a conversation once with a district overseer, also female, about disconcerting changes in the English Department’s very narrow book list. Male authors of the canon were being cut from the list and replaced by female authors. When the teacher commented that there were no longer any Dickens novels for seniors, or any novels by men for that matter, the district pogue said, “It’s about time, isn’t it?” Sandra Cisneros and Maya Angelou make guys hate reading, but some people upstairs have an agenda.

  2. Mark Roulo says:

    Male authors of the canon were being cut from the list and replaced by female authors.

    This, by itself, isn’t the problem. Some female authors can and do write books that boys enjoy (Ursula K. Le Guin, Anne McCaffrey, and J. K. Rowling come to mind). The problem is choosing books without realizing that boys and girls often have different interests (or in choosing books and *intentionally* choosing books that will appeal to the girls and that won’t appeal to the boys).

    -Mark Roulo

  3. The lack of books within the sci-fi/fantasy genre doesn’t exactly help. My local district’s summer reading list for high school students contains 148 novels and all of three fall into sci-fi/fantasy (Brave New World, 1984, and The Lord of the Rings – a student who likes this genre is likely to ).

    I’ve known teachers say “you don’t have to like a book to learn something from it.” Shouldn’t that claim work both ways?

  4. the parenthetical comment was supposed to say ‘a student who likes this genre is likely to have read at least two of these’

  5. ucladavid says:

    If you don’t like a book, get Cliff Notes. Gawd, I loved those little yellow books back in school especially when it came to the symbolism and themes.

    I remember one English saying, “Don’t you see that the rain symbolizes his redemption and that the water means spiritual reawakening?” I was like, “No, it’s just raining.” We would also take a great book like Of Mice and Men and spend so much time on it that the kids would get sick of it after the 6th week of analysis.

    In 9th grade, at least one of the main characters dies, and all of them had a sad ending. I brought that up to the teacher, and she never realized that. So where are the happy books in school?

  6. “This, by itself, isn’t the problem. Some female authors can and do write books that boys enjoy (Ursula K. Le Guin, Anne McCaffrey, and J. K. Rowling come to mind).”

    It’s definitely a problem. It’s sexist discrimination, ain’t that bad?

    I like LeGuin and Rowling, but McCaffrey? Nope!

  7. I remember one summer my brother had to read “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Now, I know it’s supposed to be a great work of 20th century American fiction…but when my book club read it (meaning the reading was more voluntary than what my brother had), and me reading it as an adult woman who LIKES to read…I had a terrible time getting through the first half of it. (Partly the dialect put me off).

    When I was in school, I really didn’t care if the authors I read were male or female. It didn’t make me feel “discriminated against” or “marginalized” or anything like that reading mostly male authors. What I WANTED were good interesting stories with interesting characters.

    Book I hated the most, ever, in school? Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening.” Which was apparently added in to the high-school “canon” as a way of putting more female writers in their. I was actually rooting for Edna to drown herself by the end of the book.

  8. superdestroyer says:

    I always point this out to by daughter when being forced to suffer through novels in English Class that she does not like.

    QUESTION: Several readers have asked this question: What is the theme of Ender’s Game?
    — Submitted by many people

    OSC REPLIES: – August 31, 1999

    I can’t help you at all, because, in my opinion, a good novel won’t have “a theme.” That’s what essays have. Novels have a STORY. If your teacher is asking you to find themes in a novel, to me that makes about as much sense as looking for gears in a fish. So how can I possibly help you find “THE theme”? You can quote me.

    Yet, in ten years later, I can find a large number of essays and reading assingments on the internet discussing the themes in Ender’s Game.

  9. This is a good example of something in Education that isn’t newly broken, it has been broken for decades and decades. And I recently discovered the solution.

    The solution is not to teach “the classics” to children at all. Those works are classics because they are rich, complex and illustrative of real life problems and situations. Children do not have the life experience to understand or appreciate most of the classics.

    I remember being tasked with reading Of Human Bondage as a high schooler. Hated it. I couldn’t sit still through more than ten pages at a time. Recently, thirty years later, I decided that I really should read it and did and, to my great surprise, I really enjoyed it. In fact, I’ve become a real fan of Maugham, especially the short stories (could a teen possibly understand a complex short story like Rain? Maybe, but it would take a lot of teaching). The same thing happened when I tackled the plays of Aeschylus: I found that as an adult I actually enjoyed them.

    Kids should be taught a love of literature, through whatever means necessary: they’ll then make it to the classics all by themselves when the time is right.

    (Although, I must say, Maya Angelou doesn’t strike me as much of a writer, even as an adult. I read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings a few years ago when there was a controversy about teaching it in the schools. I had no problem (as some did) with the content, but I thought it was a pretty mediocre novel.)

  10. Stacy in NJ says:

    I don’t think the problem is whether the author is male or female. It’s the smarmy group therapy like themes of many of these books. They make these kids read books about “tragic” social problems of the 20th century. They miss out on the big idea books that are less thematically fadish. I think Anna Karinina would be a great books for high school students. It’s got it all. How about Crime and Punishment? – that seems permanently relevant.

    High school kids want to read books about death, god, war, love, sex, sacrifice in the big meme, not the narrow focus that many of these books emphasize.

  11. Mark Roulo says:

    High school kids want to read books about death, god, war, love, sex, sacrifice in the big meme, not the narrow focus that many of these books emphasize.


    And not just high school kids, but younger kids, too.

    -Mark Roulo

  12. Of course taste, maturity level, and comprehension should be taken into account, but it’s certainly not everything.

    First off, it seems to me that teachers would have a hard time finding books that relate to everyone’s taste, etc. For example, by 5th grade I had a post-college reading level. By 6th grade I started reading “adult” books (classics/Great Books sorts of things – Jane Austen and Charles Dickens especially). I have found that as I re-read books when I’m older I get new things out of them, but don’t most people see things they overlooked before, no matter what their age? When I was 15, Les Miserables became my favorite book, and it still is, all 1400 pages of it! I’ve found that by and large I don’t like modern literature or the sorts of things that young people read. And assuming that people like certain books because of their age is not good either. I’m only 22, but I like classics (especially by British authors), theology, philosophy (especially ancient Greek), history, and cookbooks.

    As far as relating to characters and situations in books, I think that is valuable, especially for younger children. However, as kids get older, I think reading books one can’t relate to is useful as well. It widens people’s horizons and I think it also helps people to relate to real-life situations they may not be familiar with.


    “High school kids want to read books about death, god, war, love, sex, sacrifice in the big meme, not the narrow focus that many of these books emphasize.”

    So why do so many of them hate The Iliad (even in a modern, user-friendly translation)?

  13. So many hate The Illiad because their teachers do. Or the anti-intellectual establishment that ironically seems so prominent in schools today tell them it’s “not cool.” Many who read it and love it are considered the nerds and dworks of the school, anyway–like I was.

    Neither of my high school English teachers really understood the ancient literature they taught. Sometimes it seemed, to me at least, that they’d barely read the text and prepared for the lesson the night before class. Like the students.

  14. One person’s masterpiece is another person’s boredom. This is true not just for reading, but for music, movies/TV, and general art as well.

    Is there anything wrong with that? Of course not. Everyone has different tastes, after all.

    Also, is there anything wrong with subjecting K-12 students to some of the classics? Of course not.

    But it has to be balanced, or you will bore a huge part of your audience, at any age. The English teacher can’t allow himself/herself to get stuck in one genre, or one time period. Provide as much variety in the classics as possible, and allow as much outside reading as possible, too.

    But, I do offer proof that literay analysis is FAR from dead. Check out my link above, as a good example. People love to analyze the heck out of a good story – as long as it’s a story they’re personally interested in.

    Here’s another good random example:

    Literay analysis techniques applied to modern stories? Applied to stories in movie and/or comic book form, not just book form? That’s the ticket to getting kids interested in not just reading in general, but literary analysis in particular.

  15. Superdestroyer,

    I think we’ve had this conversation before, but “theme” for English teachers just means underlying or universal meaning. Surely, OSC could tell use what his book meant or was about without simply narrating the plot.

    Maybe it says something about what kids are capable of or maybe it says something about a society’s willingness to use kids to further aims they don’t even understand. Who knows? I don’t think it’s worth thinking about all that much, and I don’t consider OSC that great a writer. But kids do like him. And since older kids are usually supposed to be doing literary study, he seems like a good source to bridge this “teachers assign books that suck” gap with the kids, but only if the book has meaning and it can be analyzed, which is what leads to those prompts you are finding on the internet.

    I’m also feeling that a discussion of how important authorial intent is would be kind of silly for these comments, but maybe weirdly, OSC may not have to endorse the theme for it to be present. And there are much more astute observations the problems of morals in fiction that Card’s.

  16. Does anyone else feel like the problem might not lie in the books that are assigned as much as what is out there competing with them?

    Can the Scarlet Letter compete with Facebook? A Tale of Two Cities with Grand Theft Auto?

  17. I suppose that I was a typical male high school student — at least among those that read frequently — in that I read mostly from the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and mystery. However two of the books that stick with me most from that time were required school reading. They are “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck and “The Inferno” by Dante Alighieri. These are two books I never would have chosen for myself! Of course these are classic stories that have survived the test of time — one much longer than the other –, but I think the key reason they’ve stuck with me was how they were taught.

  18. ucladavid says:

    There has always been the problem of competiting interests. If kids didn’t text, im or use facebook, then they would talk on the phone. I remember growing up where I played video games for hours on end, or chatted with friends on the phone all night or watched TV shows for several hours.

    Every generation of kids has this problem. I was one of the best in my graduating class (finished 3rd), but I used Cliff Notes when I didn’t want to read a book like Jane Erye. I slacked off on some homework that I wasn’t interested in. I remember instead of reading Hamlet, I watched the Kenneth Branaugh 4 hour version that was 99% close to the original.

  19. This is not a new problem. I’ve always been a voracious reader and though I gravitate towards science fiction and fantasy I am open to pretty much any genre as long as it’s well written and the subject matter is presented in an interesting manner.

    My teachers introduced me to authors I would have never read on my own but who I came to love such as Steinbeck and Solzhenitsyn. At the same time, they occasionally demonstrated a knack for coming up with books that were almost impossible to get through.

    I remember that in preparation of 9th grade we were assigned Gods, Graves, & Scholars by C.W. Ceram, The King Must Die by Mary Renault, and a third book that slips my memory. I started with Gods, Graves, & Scholars because I thought it sounded cool but the reality was that this teenage boy found it very dry and incredibly boring and I was doing well to read more than 5-10 pages at a time. In fact, it took me so long to get through it that I never did manage to read The King Must Die before school started.

    Amusingly enough, when they tested us on the books we were supposed to read, I did better on the section about The King Must Die than on the two books I had actually read just by giving vague answers based on my knowledge of the Theseus myth from my independent reading of Greek mythology.

  20. “So many hate The Illiad because their teachers do.”

    Another thought…They also hate it because they have to read it. My daughter has loved Homer since she was 8. I found some excellent retellings in the form of audio books for her at that point.

    They were originally oral tales and maybe that’s how kids should be introduced to them. It always struck me as a little stupid to introduce kids to Shakespeare by making them read it as well. Present art in the medium it was meant for?

  21. Good thought, Dawn. That’s how I’m planning to present much of the oral tradition Anglo-Saxon work that I love so much to the boy I’m carrying now. I think it’ll speak to him–there’s more to A-S poetry than most people ever realize. And most teachers have no idea how to present it.

    I fell in love with Shakespeare when I was eight or nine through Charles & Mary Lamb’s charming adaptations for children.

  22. “Another thought…They also hate it because they have to read it.”

    This is true of a lot of required readings. For instance Dickens did not write true novels. Most of his major works are actually serials that were published over the course of years in literary magazines and then collected into single volumes. Worse yet, no one told me this when we read David Copperfield.

    The same is true for Shakespeare. His plays are meant to be performed onstage but are often taught as if they were closet dramas. Not that high school students do very well with acting things out, but it sure was less painful than reading it at home.

  23. Mark Roulo says:

    The same is true for Shakespeare. His plays are meant to be performed onstage but are often taught as if they were closet dramas. Not that high school students do very well with acting things out, but it sure was less painful than reading it at home.

    One crazy possibility would be to watch a movie of the play in question. *Then* read the bits that we care about while discussing the play.

    I have a hard time imagining a film class *reading* the scripts and talking about the movies *without* watching them. Why are plays different?

    -Mark Roulo

  24. Have them read A. Lansing’s “Endurance.” I’ve yet to encounter another book that so many enjoy and bond over.

  25. I think it takes some maturity to appreciate a lot of books. Even as a bookish girl-teen, I couldn’t manage Jane Austen – she was much better when I read her works in my late 20s.

    The best set of readings I even had in school were during my 8th grade year, when I took a half-year class where we focused on Mark Twain, and another half-year class focused on Charles Dickens. Both are accessible and entertaining for teens.

  26. Catch Thirty-Three says:

    Many moons ago, my senior English class watched “Hamlet”. Why? because my English teacher, to his immense credit, said that “Plays are meant to be performed and watched, not read.” I enjoyed “Hamlet”. Perhaps a little too much, actually. 🙂

    There is merit to everything I have read here. I actually enjoy discussions like this because it allows me to reflect so much on the past and how I approached literature (I’ll be pondering this all afternoon). In my mind, you can introduce “the classics” but you have to do it in such a way where it isn’t necessarily painful. Too many times I have known teachers who seem to go out of their way to destroy the enjoyment of reading. Take my freshman English teacher. We read “The Old Man And The Sea” and I thought it was okay. But she seems out-and-out determined to make us hate it with her discussions of symbolism. She was not amused when I was saying that there was nothing special about it, that it was all about a fisherman who one day went after a marlin and spent his time not fishing by discussing baseball.

    Don’t get me started on “Great Expectations”. That was the worst novel I read in school and in fact I think Dickens to be overrated. While she was destroying whatever fun you could have with something as horrible as “Great Expectations”, I kept sneaking swipes of “The Odyssey”. 🙂

    Of course, at the other extreme is the example of my senior English teacher who had us watch “Hamlet”.

  27. On a tour of the New Globe Theater in London the guide kept reminding us that Shakespeare’s plays were primarily meant to be heard rather than seen. I gather people of the time used to say they were going to hear a play.