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Students Won’t Read? Start with Their Beliefs

By Dave Stuart Jr.

For reading in any course to matter as much as it can, the students have to 1) do the reading, and 2) do the reading actively, with care (e.g., asking questions, looking up new terms, taking notes).

Many teachers — myself included — encounter a few common situations in which kids don't naturally do this with the reading we'd ask them to do:

  • They do it, but barely. Caleb was a locker reader. He'd show up to school each morning, get out the assigned world history reading, and scramble through it during the ten minutes before his first hour class started with me. He did it, but not with care.
  • They don't do it, but they pretend they do. (Often called “fake reading.”) Kids like Caleb end up in this category when there is no consequence or reward attached to reading. By giving frequent, low-stakes quizzes to my students, I'm able to push Caleb into the “do it but barely” category, and when I slack off on giving quizzes, Caleb and his peers slip into this one.
  • They don't do it, and they don't pretend that they do. All kinds of things can cause this, but you know what I'm talking about.

I often see teachers and edu-authors respond to these scenarios by calling for curricular change — Less reading and more doing! Less teacher-selected texts and more student-selected ones! I can empathize with and respect these approaches, but I think they are often founded on foggy notions of what actually makes a young person 1) do the reading, and 2) do it with care.

These are the five things that determine whether or not a child will 1) do the reading and 2) do it with care in my classroom, and in yours.

Credibility

Does the child believe I am a good teacher? If she does, she'll be more likely to do what I ask. So if I say, “Hey, work really, really, really hard on your reading,” she'll be more likely to do that if she thinks I'm a good teacher. Or if I instead say, “Hey, here's why I'd like you to read this text, and here's how I'd like you to read it, and now let me teach you how to read in that active and purposeful way that we're after,” then she'll be more likely to do those things.

What I'm trying to illustrate with those two examples is that teacher credibility isn't a magic bullet — it's only as powerful as the teaching behind it. The most credible teacher in the world who just tells a kid to “work, work, work” isn't going to get as much long-term flourishing potential out of that kid as the moderately credible one who is exceptionally clear about the What-Why-How of every reading assignment.

There's no escaping the need to be a fundamentally good teacher. Ditch the distractions and start investing here and now.

Belonging

Does the child think of herself as the kind of person who reads things like this? If she does, she'll be more likely to do it. Daphna Oyserman has a beautiful term — “identity-congruent behavior.” People like doing identity-congruent things — things that line up with their sense of who they are. A good line to use here is, “People like us do things like this.”

Belonging, like all the five beliefs, is hugely malleable, and it shifts based on where we are and who we're with. This is good news: even if a child hates reading in history class, she need not hate it in English or science.

Effort

Does the child believe that she can get better at reading through her own effort? If she does, she'll be more likely to do it, especially when her teacher does a good job gradually ramping up reading demands as the year progresses. It's not just about effort here — it's about smart effort. Strategic effort. This is where the teacher comes in: “Hey, I've read a lot of things. I know how to do this strategically. Let me show you.”

Efficacy

Does she think she can succeed at this? Or here's an even more important question: can she? The teacher has the tough job of deciding where the line is between challenging and worthy and too hard and a waste of time. In the early years of my AP course, the students read through the whole college-level textbook over the course of the year. It was too much and it was too hard and it was not worthy (because the text wasn't written in the straightforward, helpful teaching fashion that my ninth-grade students deserved). So, what happened? A lot of kids fake read.

As I learned which content mattered most in getting my kids to mastery of the course material, I started assigning smaller chunks each night, and then I started using excerpts from various texts.

Administrators: This is why you need to do all in your power to let teachers do the same work, year after year. You've got to give them the conditions within which to get wise about the work. I understand that it's difficult and requires out of the box thinking.

Teachers: This is is why we must work so hard to focus, despite the ceaseless distractions that permeate our lives. There aren't shortcuts — it's just sustained engagement with the work.

We must make success challenging and manageable.

Value

Does she think this matters to her life? The value belief is my favorite because of the diverse paths through which human beings come to value things. Some are motivated by grades, others by the entertainment value of reading.

What we want is for them to value learning, to value mastery, to value every day of their lives so that they won't let an assignment become wasted. “Yes, I don't particularly care about the topic of this week's AoW, but I care about learning, and I know that Mr. Stuart wouldn't have given it to me unless he thought it was important, so I'm going to apply myself to this.” Kids who think like that don't fall into our three problem categories: they do the reading and do it with care because they believe it matters.

The Gist

Before you change the curriculum, analyze the five key beliefs. That way, you'll make better and more effective changes.


I've got a whole course of the five key beliefs, and I'm opening it up for a brief “Back to School” window in August. 400 educators from around the world have participated, and their average end-of-course approval rating is a 9.6 out of 10. It works.

Registration will open on August 3. The “Tell Me More” list is here.

Also, my new book has a whole chapter on the beliefs and a whole chapter on reading. People are saying the book is great. It's here.

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