Is English Class to Blame for the Death of Reading?

Kayla Tehero, Staff Writer

Hundreds of raindrops patter against your window, the wind howls through the trees. You are warm and cozy in a pair of fleece pajama bottoms, mug of tea in hand, relaxing deep into the heart of a large love sack. But the best part is your newest read, a beautiful gold-trimmed cover, that delicious, new book smell, and the whimsical story that will take you far, far away.

For some, this still describes their perfect Sunday afternoon. But for a growing number of individuals, reading can be a simultaneously boresome and difficult task rather than a pleasant escape from reality. Many blame developments in technology that have decreased the entertainment value of reading. But without understanding the environment that is today’s English classes, we would not have the whole picture for why students are choosing not to read.

For some students, English class is enjoyable, and has fueled their love for reading. Freshman Mark Morozov says, “I enjoy English books. I think for the most part, at least for me, English classes encourage me to read.” But in my personal experience, as a student who truly enjoys reading for fun, English classes usually feel like an intolerable waste of time. When reading a novel for English class, we are rarely given the opportunity to just enjoy reading the book or appreciating it for the art that it is. Instead, we are constantly interrupted with arbitrary assignments focusing more on the structure of the words and the subtle, subjective themes of the novel, rather than the actual story. Sophomore Kaila McKinnon, an avid reader, shares, “A lot of [English class] is that you are not reading to read, you are reading to notice stuff and use it for an essay later, which a lot of people do not like… it is not a good way to start.” In his satirical Education Week article, elementary teacher Justin Minkel says, “School has a way of messing up even the inherently joyful act of reading a good book…. Our students need to learn all kinds of things to become strong readers. But sometimes we make the process so cumbersome and artificial that it strips the joy from the act of reading…. Teachers need to make sure students get plenty of time to experience the joy of simply reading a great book, free from the annoyance of an assigned task or constant interruption.”

It is important to remember that, while understanding the structure of a novel is important, what is arguably more important is understanding the message and the story of that novel. Reading gives students the opportunity to explore experiences outside of their own; it is an opportunity to tell stories that open minds and open hearts, to make the world a better, more empathetic place. That is what evidently makes students love reading, is not how successfully they can do it, but what they can learn from it. Senior Cooper Laszlo shares, “I had to take an intensive reading class in seventh and eighth grade, and it tried to make me faster and better with comprehension. It did not really help.” Unfortunately, reading is no longer a big part of Laszlo’s life, and they believe that this program is at least partly to blame.

What English classes need is to find is balance between reading and analysis and find that happy medium in class assignments that challenges students thinking but does not inspire an animosity for literature. A fifteen-year-old English student wrote to The Guardian, saying, “We are missing the core of literature, the excitement, and it is being misunderstood for a lack of intelligence. In a recent class, to explain Romeo’s love for Rosaline, a timeline sheet given to the class read Romeo describing Rosaline as ‘super hot.’ Dumbing down literature does not help: it makes us feel stupid.” Especially in on-level, graduation requirement English classes, teachers assume that their poor reception to the curriculum means it is too challenging. We do not need to make the curriculum easier; we need to make it different. Do not respond to disinterest by making the class “popcorn read” or draw a picture to go with the story. You are only making it more tedious. Ask the students real, thought-provoking questions and encourage them to share their ideas rather than taking turns reading a paragraph.

English classes also need to give students choices in what they read. George Lucas Educational Foundation’s Edutopia writes, “Unless a child is given the opportunity to read poetry, mysteries, historical fiction, biographies, autobiographies, and science fiction, he or she may not know all of the types of stories that are created for readers of all ages. Student book choice is the first step in getting children hooked on reading.” If students are not given the opportunity to explore what kind of books they like, it is not likely that they will learn to love reading the same way. Reading the same Shakespearean and transcendentalist novels does not exactly demonstrate the diversity of American literature. Junior Mackenzie Wilmot-Wade says, “I honestly dislike the lack of choice in English classes. I understand the necessity of reading similar things as my peers and of a structured curriculum, but I rarely get to read books I want outside of class so why can I not read them in class?” With so much homework, extracurriculars, and other commitments, there is little time for high school students to love to read.

While English teachers mourn the death of reading, they should consider the effect that their English curriculum has on their students, and how they can reinstate a passion for literature in them that has since died out. Reading is about enjoying yourself, about discovering new stories and going new places. Reading is not math or science; the words should not be broken down until they have no meaning. Reading is an experience, and if we teach students the right way to read, we can teach them the right way to love reading.