High school English class is when students encounter classic works of literature like Great Expectations and The Grapes of Wrath. It’s also when the reading load in other classes increases dramatically.
Some teens love classics, but weighty literature is enough to make other students, even those who read well, run from books. At home, parents can help their teenagers tackle their school assignments while reminding them that reading is also something you do for fun.
Cathy Fleischer, a professor of English at Eastern Michigan University, is the author of Reading and Writing and Teens: A Parent’s Guide to Adolescent Literacy, published by the National Council of Teachers of English. She says parents can support their kids by encouraging all types of reading, from Internet content and text exchanges with friends to genre fiction and, of course, the difficult books required by teachers. Here are some of Fleischer’s suggestions for inspiring your high school student to read.
Don’t fret over technology. Fleischer doesn’t believe that the text messaging phenomenon is ruining kids’ ability to read and write. She notes that Plato feared that writing would displace memory. As new technology comes along, reading and writing may change, but literacy won’t vanish. “The goal is to try to understand technology and celebrate it,” she says, adding that parents can help their children use their tech devices to access the types of reading that interest them. For example, your child might be able to download e-books or audiobooks from the library, or she can research a favorite author online. Many kids enjoy reading blogs. “With growing technologies, there is a growing number of genres, as well,” Fleischer says.
Downplay the label “classic.” The idea of a classic is subjective and has changed over time, with some books moving off lists of classic literature and others being added. Many readers associate “classic” with a dense and boring book. Others assume that if you’re not reading classics, you’re not really reading. Fleischer suggests combing the American Library Association’s reading lists for quality alternatives to classics. (There are also additional booklists from the ALA’s young adult services division.)
Remember that everybody struggles. While you’re dismissing labels, rethink the idea of the struggling or reluctant reader. “Many of us struggle with some type of reading,” Fleischer says, noting that her husband and sons love nonfiction books with science themes, which she would have a hard time reading. If your child has been labeled a struggling or reluctant reader, expose him to a variety of books tied to his interests.
Talk about your reading difficulties. Your children might be surprised to know you didn’t exactly adore Shakespeare or you struggled with Steinbeck. Emphasize the sense of accomplishment you get when you finish a challenging book. Let them know that it’s normal not to understand a difficult book right away and that one way to develop an understanding of the book is to discuss it with others.
Teach your child about different types of reading. Even an academic doesn’t devour a textbook like she would a novel. “I don’t read a research text from beginning to end,” Fleischer says. You can teach your child to skim academic texts for relevant information, take notes, and identify the thesis.
Branch out. If your child loves mysteries, help her find the best mysteries. If your son loves graphic novels, help him find high-quality graphic novels. In addition to the American Library Association lists, you can find great book suggestions of every conceivable type on these lists:
- Random House’s Modern Library top 100 fiction and nonfiction books
- National Book Award winners
- Man Booker Prize winners
- Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists
- Newbery Medal and Newbery Honor books
Make reading interactive. “Kids today want to produce text, not just receive it,” Fleischer says. “Reading doesn’t have to be seen as a solitary activity.” Teens can post book reviews on Amazon.com, discuss books online, and rewrite classic dialogue in the form of text messages.
Help your child tackle a difficult book. If a book required for school has your child intimidated, share some strategies for getting through it. For example, he can maintain a list of characters to refer back to, or you can take turns reading the book aloud. See whether an audiobook is available for him to listen to while reading. Help your child make connections with the book. How is the action in the story relevant to his life? Does a particular character remind him of someone in real life? If your child doesn’t connect with a beloved classic, he might not be emotionally mature enough; he might read and appreciate the classic when he’s older.
Encourage reading for pleasure. Praise your child for getting good grades, but also let her know you’re proud of her when she makes time to read a juicy novel just for fun. Appreciate magazines, websites, and other short bursts of language. If it involves words, it’s reading.
Model good reading habits. Telling your child to read isn’t enough; your child needs to see you reading. At the dinner table, talk about books you are reading. Read the books your children are reading. Talk about whom you would cast if you were making the book into a movie.
Help your child make time for reading. High school student are pushed and pulled in different directions, and they may not think they have time to read for pleasure. Encourage your child to make reading a habit, even if he only has 10 minutes at night. Spend a vacation or a rainy Saturday reading at home as a family. Go to the library as a family. Give your children gift cards to bookstores. Computers and video games can be a major distraction for kids (and parents); “I see nothing wrong with limiting the screen time teens use for video games and social networking,” Fleischer says, “especially if you can help create time for other types of reading.”
If you make reading a priority at home, your child will have a good chance of making reading a priority at school. Not every student will get excited over a Jane Austen novel, but in a world saturated with text, just about any teenager can find something worthwhile to read. “At the end of the day, I want kids to enjoy reading,” Fleischer says. ‘It’s less important to me that they’re reading book X, book Y and book Z....Reading well, especially in the 21st century, has to do with all kinds of reading, not just novels.”