Busy work kills love of reading

School assignments killed his son’s love of reading, writes Tony on Leading Motivated Learners.

Reading logs and summaries became a chore, he writes. Written responses were “never checked or responded to.”

“Book reports . . . became more about drawing some amazing picture to go on the cover of the report than anything else,” Tony complains. “They were also so formulaic that little thought went into completing them.”

Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach

Instead of reading a passage, then answering comprehension questions, his son “would just read the questions and the multiple choice answers and then scan the passage for the correct answer – no reading really involved there.”

Close readings, a Common Core staple, meant “reading the same book for months and doing endless assignments around that one book.”

Even before the close reading era, my daughter would complain that it took forever to read a book, hunt down its symbolism, “journal” about it and beat it to death in class.

We did almost none of this when I was in school, except for writing book reports.

My fifth-grade teacher told us to write a 1 1/2-page book report for every book we read. I was reading a book a day, so it was a lot of work. I suspected she didn’t read the reports. One day, in my largest handwriting and widest margins, I wrote:

Johann Sebastian Bach is a book about Johann Sebastian Bach. Sometimes Johann Sebastian Bach was called Johann Sebastian Bach, but sometimes Johann Sebastian Bach was called Johann, Johann Sebastian or Bach. However, Johann Sebastian Bach was not called Sebastian or Sebastian Bach.

That was the first page. On the second page, I wrote:

 Johann Sebastian Bach is a very good book for boys and girls who are interested in reading about Johann Sebastian Bach.

The teacher never said a word about it. I kept churning out book reports, because that’s the sort of person I am. did not lose my love of reading.

In sixth grade, we just had to fill out an index card for every book we read. For years after, the teacher used my stack — 184 books, I  think — to terrify her new students.

Robert Pondiscio wrote on Facebook: “You know what REALLY kills the love of reading: Not teaching kids how to @#%*! read…. ”

How can teachers teach reading without boring readers?

Update: A New Jersey district lets teachers assign short excerpts from a novel for close reading, then show a movie based on the book. In my school days, we watched the movie of Julius Caesar (James Mason!) and Pride and Prejudice (Laurence Olivier!), but we read whole books, not excerpts.

About Joanne


  1. 1) If you’re just looking for LOTS of reading, then first teach them to read properly (i.e., let them in on the basic phonetic code of written English and tell them about the exceptions that come from stealing words from other languages, which have their different codes) and then let them loose on books they like such as Harry Potter. Give them a star on a chart or some other visible reward for each book they read, no matter how lacking in literary merit the book might seem.
    2) If you want close reading, then be prepared to teach the book in conjunction with history, geography, culture, and the author’s personal life. It’s unfair the way they throw an isolated book at kids in English class and expect them to figure out the symbolism contained in a product of an unfamiliar environment. Coordinating English classes and history classes at a school would be helpful.

    • Both the 1-12 classical curriculum (Wise and Bauer) and Core Knowledge do this, and also include the arts and technological advances. Wise and Bauer also pair the sciences (natural/biology with the ancient world, chem with medieval etc).

  2. We did book reports in American history class in high school. Miss Hankins didn’t read any of them. Once I figured that out, I quoted the lyrics of rock music songs to save time and effort. In particular, I remember using the words to “Black Magic Woman” (Well, it was a hit back then). I never got caught.

  3. When the dinosaurs roamed the earth (HS grad 67), and I was in my small-town 1-12 school, I do not remember ever handing in a piece of work that was not corrected. We often exchanged papers to correct simple arithmetic, spelling words etc, but anything not black/white/no partial credit or open to interpretation was graded by teachers. There must have been a few things not so corrected, but I do not remember them. We also did far more writing (plus grammar and composition instruction, than any of my kids did.

    I remember making lists of books I had read, and also doing brief (1 pg or so) book reports. Above the first few grades, the books had to be approved by teachers (highest quality book consistent with each kid’s reading level) and usually of a specific type (bio, hist fiction, sci, etc) or illustrating specific concept (imagery etc).

  4. Assignments do not have to kill the love of reading, if they’re carefully designed to take students farther into the text. This is “close reading” but not a tedious kind. Then, after they have pored over and written about it, they discuss it in class. Or else the reverse: they might look carefully at a passage on class and then write and read further at home. If the text is good, and if the assignments and activities lead to greater understanding of it, the students, in my experience, do not get bored.

    Yes, it’s important to give students feedback; that way they know their writing is being read. This takes hours if you have 100-300 students, even if you go fast. But it’s worth it.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      “Assignments do not have to kill the love of reading, if they’re carefully designed to take students farther into the text. ”

      What percentage of the assignments in, say, grades 4-10 are “carefully designed to take students farther into the text?” Because even if this can work well in theory, if in practice it fails most of the time then we have a problem.

      • I have seen it in practice–granted, especially in high school, but also in elementary and middle grades. That said, a few things would have to happen for it to become more common:

        1. Schools would need strong curricula and professional development that focused on the subject matter itself.

        2. Professional development overall would need to focus on ways of understanding and teaching the subject matter (i.e., works of literature, mathematical problems, etc.).

        3. Education schools, too, would need to turn their attention to subject matter and ways of teaching it. Some education schools (such as Bard MAT) do this–but they are not the majority.

        That’s just a start, but it would be a good one. Short of that, one can try to bring out the good work that is already being done (around the U.S. and in other countries).

    • I do not have a philosophical disagreement with either approach, but the current mania for full inclusion (including most spec ed) often renders either impossible. Kids who cannot read the words, understand them or their context or comprehend emotional/social aspects (ASD) cannot read and discuss, let alone write about academic material – not to mention kids’ frequent reluctance, often refusal, to do any work outside class. I am almost at the point of saying that schools’ primary focus should be on the willing – sorted by academic level/performance. Right now, we have the opposite.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      A lesson or assignment cannot take students further into a text. They require a guide, who knows the territory and can lead them through the hazards and dangers of the literary jungle.

      Qualified guides are hard to come by, and giving someone a map doesn’t make them a guide.

      Not for this sort of journey.

      • Thank you, Michael. Of course the assignment has to be combined with good guidance. I did not mean to suggest otherwise.

        Unfortunately teachers are under pressure to have the students discover the texts themselves. In the Danielson Framework, the “highly effective” teacher is one whose students “initiate higher-order questions,” “extend the discussion, enriching it,” “invite comments from their classmates,” and so forth. In certain contexts, and at certain times in a unit, this can be great. But if this means that a teacher observed in a walkthrough will get a lower rating if she is taking the students through a text, then we have a big problem.

        The Danielson Framework is not all bad–a great deal of it makes sense–but it shows a distinct preference for student-led lessons (which, again, have a time and place but should not be deemed superior to lessons led by a teacher.)

        • Michael E. Lopez says:

          Oh it wasn’t meant as criticism of you in any way. I knew what you meant. I was really making a comment on how people so devalue the agency of teachers (rightly or wrongly it’s sometimes hard to say) that they commonly speak of “lessons” or “assignments” accomplishing things.

          That seems particularly wrong-headed in connection with any sort of deep understanding of a text. (Which, to be fair, is a fairly bourgeois concern ex ante.)

  5. Ann in L.A. says:

    In fifth grade, my niece’s school decided to broaden their students’ reading horizons. They did this by requiring, in addition to school assignments, students to choose pleasure reading books which adhered to a specific formula: they had to read one book from or about every inhabited continent.

    At the time, my niece–who was never a great reader–was slowly plugging through the Redwall books. She had to put aside the books she *wanted* to read in order to read the books she didn’t.

    She’s never read for pure pleasure since (she’s now 16).

  6. Forcing all kids at a grade level to read the same books etc., regardless of their reading/background knowledge level will always be impossible/frustrating for the kids performing below grade level and utterly boring/frustrating for the kids performing above it. Separate, leveled classes or groups is my recommendation. Perhaps most can read a version of Robinson Crusoe, The Odyssey, etc., but not all can, or should read the same version. Besides, expecting teachers to “differentiate” effectively across 3, 5 or more performance levels cannot be done by the vast majority of teachers, in the real world. Giving them a small performance range of kids increases their effectiveness and undoubtedly makes all happier. Teachers have no more miracle-workers than any other group has.

  7. Suzanne Lucas says:

    My daughter read the entire Harry Potter series in the first semester of first grade. She’s never seen without a book in her hand (even now, at 13). We used to punish her by taking away her books. (Admittedly, we punish her now by taking away her phone.)

    In elementary school she was supposed to fill out a reading log every night and I was supposed to sign it. I said to the teacher, “The point of this is so you know the students are reading. We all know she’s reading. I’m not doing it.”

    And that was that. It was a private school, though, so they had more leeway.

  8. Teachers can teach reading without boring students when students are placed by instructional need. When nclb and full inclusion began, students here were placed by grade level. Teachers were not allowed to have reading groups. My child’s first grade teacher handled it by telling the students they were allowed to think while she was forced to give a whole class lesson rather than pay attention. So, the students who were already capable readers took her up on it rather than pretending to learn how to read, or incurring the wrath of the sped teachers.for ‘taunting those who dont have wealthy parents by the act of reading their novel in their lap’. Because we all know that no child can figure anything out on their own.

  9. Compulsion kills motivation, across the board. I know three people who actively dislike classical music. Their parents (different families) sent them to piano lessons at a young age. I read poetry on my own from age 12 or so to age 16, then suffered through a semester of compulsory poetry in high school and stopped reading poetry for three years. When I tell people that I used to teach Math, the most common response is “Math was my worst subject”. All it takes to be decent at Math is enjoyment of puzzles. Anyone who enjoys crossword puzzles or jigsaw puzzles could become fluent in K-12 Math. Why do so many people dislike Math? It’s compulsory.

    As ever: … “What works?” is an empirical question to which a competitive market will deliver higher quality information than will a State-monopoly enterprise. A State-monopoly enterprise is an experiment with one treatment and no controls: a retarded experimental design.

  10. I think maybe this boils down to teachers who are good at it. In fifth grade, we had a situation much like Ann in LA above. We were assigned, over a semester, to read ten books from ten categories, “history”, “biography”, “science”, etc. We got to pick the books. For each book, we had to turn in a one-page book report that was mostly about three or four paragraphs describing the book (and these were graded and returned).

    The teacher was smart, however, in a way that would be no longer approved today: he made it a contest, with a big chart on the wall showing everyone’s progress. Each successful book report got a star on the chart in the appropriate category.

    Once done with the ten required books, you could read anything you liked and each book report added a star to the chart. It became a race, with about half the class really competing and the other half just doing the minimum. Of those really competing, the race got pretty intense by the last couple of weeks in the semester. I think the winner had something like thirty or forty stars.

    I really enjoyed it and read a ton of books. I think I came in third or so. It WAS a lot off work for the teacher, of course, since this made probably five or six hundred book reports to read and grade over the semester, but I doubt he took more that about two minutes for each one. They either got a star, meaning a star went up on the chart, or an X with a comment like “Are you sure you read this book? Try again.” He didn’t correct spelling or grammar, I don’t think, at least not all the time.

  11. As a sub I see this all the time. This “close reading” thing is nonsense. Because the books the students are reading are two-three grades below the actual grade level of the students; the works are terribly dull. They will stretch out these books that could be finished in at least 2 weeks. Just as it is described in the linked article. I feel for the students; it just wasn’t like this when I was in school. We had to write REAL book reports. I remember in third grade writing a report about Abraham Lincoln. Even in second grade I wrote a report about the Grizzly Bear. That’s how the curriculum was in my school district(unfortunately, the district has declined, and tragically so).

  12. Cranberry says:

    My children in public school never wrote a book report. That’s a failure, as it’s a very good way to monitor a child’s progress towards accurate analysis and expository writing.

    I wish I had had the courage as a young mother to refuse to participate in the reading journal nonsense. My kids were reading a book a day at times. The bookkeeping didn’t kill their love of reading, but it was an annoying task which didn’t make any difference.

    Writing paragraphs about their reactions to the books was more useful.

    I’m not convinced, though, that it’s possible to kill the love of reading in a child who loves to read. I think everyone can find something they would be interested in reading. It takes family trips to places like libraries and bookstores to nurture the appetite. That isn’t only a school’s job.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      “I’m not convinced, though, that it’s possible to kill the love of reading in a child who loves to read.”

      Be wary of the True Scotsman fallacy here.

      “Well, if the school managed to kill Madison’s love of reading, Madison never REALLY loved to read in the first place …”

      I think this is something more continuous. Some kids will read no matter what happens to them. Some won’t read unless forced, again no matter what. And there are a bunch in the middle who can be successfully encouraged or discouraged depending on the environment. Making reading less desirable for this crowd is bad.

      • Cranberry says:

        Loving something means placing it really high on your personal list of daily activities. For many children, it’s likely they find something they would rather spend time on, such as talking with friends or YouTube videos. You can’t multitask while reading.

        You also can’t really tell if someone is actually reading, unless you quiz them afterward. Was Johnny really reading every book for which he filled out a card? Or did he look up the plot on Spark Notes?

        There is the story of the teacher who couldn’t read. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Corcoran_(author)

        I’ll point out that Tony Sinanis’s son still loves to read. Pleading to stay up later to read his book is a sign he loves to read.

        Rereading the post on Leading Motivated Learners, I would summarize the post as a difficulty on the son’s side in dealing with assigned schoolwork. How do you motivate a child to complete work which is not as interesting as the books he’s read? It could be that the class is progressing too slowly.

        I agree with the author that busy work can be destructive. The overall time devoted to homework should not crowd out the time a child can devote to reading. It is also hard to balance inculcating respect for the teacher with assignments which are busy work.

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