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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

If kids don't do much reading, they won't get good at it

Perhaps college students can't read long or complex texts because they didn't read many books in middle and high school, suggests "Bellringer" Holly Korbey. Her son read no books in his sixth-grade class in a large public school, she writes on X. He did very little writing. In seventh grade at a private school, he read six books in class and wrote a paper. Here are some responses.

In 2019, Korbey wrote for Edutopia that English teachers were moving away from teaching classic novels and letting students read books of their own choice. Teens prefer The Little Mermaid: Against the Tide or Star Wars: Padawan to Lord of the Flies.

Some worry "that too much student choice is putting young adult (YA) and graphic novels — not highly regarded and vetted literature — at the center of the English literature curriculum," she wrote. "Challenging books help boost students’ comprehension and reading proficiency, they argue, and force them to grapple with difficult, timeless questions about love, life and death, and societal dynamics."

If every student is reading a different book, it's impossible to have a class discussion. "Teacher-led explicit instruction in reading a particular text (especially in different genres), combined with lots of reading, can reap four to eight times the payoff compared with students’ choosing books and reading on their own," wrote Korbey, citing Timothy Shanahan, founding director of the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Common Core standards encouraged teaching short texts such as articles, poems and excerpts of novels, wrote Ariel Sacks, a middle-school English teacher in Education Week in 2019. She advocates teaching Whole Novels for the Whole Class. Reading excerpts is "a Band-Aid for low reading stamina and motivation," she writes.

My sixth-grade teacher told us to fill out an index card for every book we read at home. The minimum was 10 in the school year. I read 152. I read fantasy, adventure, Nancy Drew, history, biographies and . . . everything. Young-adult and graphic novels hadn't been invented.

I slowed down in seventh grade because I was reading longer books: Tale of Two Cities, Kidnapped, Lord of the Rings, etc.

282 views10 comments


May 21

"Many Americans who grew up being forced to read those novels do no reading for enjoyment."

"...then people need to show their work and link to the academic studies."

"In reality, most English teachers in high school do a good job to train boys to hate fiction and hate reading for enjoyment."

Hmmmm....that's a statement worthy of discussion.

May 22
Replying to

I had a fellow teacher's child, a few years after my test room observation, and she said there had been a swing back of the pendulum toward more male-oriented readings in middle school.


Bruce Smith
Bruce Smith
May 21

The most prominently displayed English standard on the Common Core website is Standard 10, which illustrates the "range, quality, & complexity" of texts to be taught with the following list of literature for middle school:

  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1869)

  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (1876)

  • “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost (1915)

  • The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper (1973)

  • Dragonwings by Laurence Yep (1975)

  • Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor (1976)

I regularly teach the first two, and have had pupils independently read the last novels listed, and so don't condone Ms. Sacks's blaming the Core for a failure to teach whole novels: many commenters' opinions about the English Core mainly reveal that…


May 20

Three cheers for the index card readings. I got hooked on this in the 5th grade and read well over a hundred books in the school year. Lots of junk lit, but also lots of classic mysteries, sci-fi, and bestsellers. Oh, and the first time through for Gulliver's Travels and Moby Dick. Ya gotta walk before you run.


May 20

To claim that reading classic novels helps develop an enjoyment of reading is laughable. Many Americans who grew up being forced to read those novels do no reading for enjoyment. And if being forced to read "How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents" or "Their Eyes Were Watching God" develops life long readers, then people need to show their work and link to the academic studies. In reality, most English teachers in high school do a good job to train boys to hate fiction and hate reading for enjoyment.

May 21
Replying to

What about Treasure Island, Kidnapped!, Swiss Family Robinson, the Louis L'Amour series, Zane Grey, Red Badge of Courage, All Quiet on the Western Front, ...? Those are classic adventure novels that boys might like. I'd add Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, but I'm not sure whether we're still allowed to assign those.

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