For the Love of Literacy

How to prevent middle school students from losing their affinity for reading.

Topics: Literacy, Curriculum and Instruction, Middle Level

A child laughing out loud. Two students whispering feverishly to each other. A teen’s wide eyes and open mouth. Walking as swiftly as possible through the halls with a book in hand. You see these images when children are engaged in, and enthusiastic about, reading.

As educators, we’ve also seen what it looks like when a child loses “that lovin’ feeling” (as the Righteous Brothers once sang) for reading: Staring at the book but never turning pages. Saying they don’t have a book to read. Switching book choices faster than a TikTok video. A dramatic sigh when it’s time to read.

Research says that reading is of the utmost importance to student success in and out of school, so we want to help students maintain a love for reading throughout their education—and especially through the middle grades, when academic and social pressures start to mount.

The feeling often starts to fade at about 9 years old, according to Scholastic’s 2019 “Kids & Family Reading Report.” That’s when children shift from learning to read to reading to learn—a challenging phase for many students, since their skills are still developing. Reading becomes more of an individualized activity, as families start to read together less often at home and students read more at school. By the middle grades, many students haven’t figured out what they like to read and might regard reading as a school-based chore.

Educators must be proactive before the love for reading is “gone, gone, gone.” The ways in which we can do that are pretty simple, but here’s the kicker: We as adults must let go of our traditional views of what reading looks like.

Let Reading Be Social

As students develop, they become more social and increasingly look to their peers for their needs. Let kids be social when reading; here are several venues to encourage that:

Book clubs. Make the book club match your audience not just with the book they are reading but also the format in which the book club talks about the book. Think what drives adults to join book clubs—the conversation. Socializing about reading leads to growing confidence as readers and builds a positive culture of reading for all participants to enjoy, says Deborah Hollimon in the International Literacy Association’s Literacy Daily blog.

Reading together. Regardless of age, reading is an activity that builds connections when performed together, leading to an increased sense of community. Let students read together out loud from the rooftops, or as quietly as mice. Let them read as a whole group, in small groups, or in pairs.

Book talks. Many adults go to other adults in their social circles, follow the recommendations of famous people, or look to social media for ideas about what book to read next. Help students recommend books to each other by periodically having students share what they are reading and sharing appropriate suggestions with them. You can even create mini-advertisements for book suggestions that students can access through a QR code.

Consider facilitating a family book night at which families come to school with a book to share with fellow parents and students. You can expand this to a book swap, asking individuals to bring a book they recommend and give it to someone who wants to enjoy it. Everyone will walk out with a new book they are excited to read.

Empower Student Choice

If we want to help students keep their love of reading, educators should stop trying to control so much of that reading. This is even more significant for readers who struggle.

Teach students how to pick a book. Knowing yourself as a reader is a constant evolution. Think about how long it takes to choose what to watch on a screen or what song to listen to; students need to be taught the art of choosing a book for themselves.

Different factors influence readers when choosing a book. Ask students questions such as “What do you like to watch on television?” “What subjects are you interested in?” “What makes you happy?” “Do you like facts, learning about the past, or stories about kids like you?”

Have students talk to their family members about how they choose books and model the selection process for them. Check in with students periodically about their book choices to help them figure out which books engage their curiosity best.

Limit the choices. Having choices doesn’t mean walking into a bookstore or library and saying, “Pick one.” Even the most passionate readers would be overwhelmed. You can still offer students choice with structure and guidance. Here are a few options to frame their choices:

Choose from this basket of books.

Pick a book in the area of [insert genre].

Choose a book by [insert author].

And remember, a book isn’t the only thing to read. Text comes in many forms, including graphic novels, comic books, magazines, student-​appropriate blogs/social media/websites, picture books, chapter books, and short stories.

Make Time to Read

Ultimately, the most effective way for students to grow as readers is to read. To help this happen, carve out time for every student to read, every day. In middle school, this might be 10 minutes at the start of every period or assigned blocks of reading time in homeroom.

For our children to find a love of reading and continue it for the rest of their lives, we need to ensure that reading is a social activity, give students choice, and set aside time to read. We must get out of their way, while giving them the tools and opportunities they need to enjoy reading. That way, they’ll never lose that lovin’ feeling.

Katy Kennedy is principal of Washington Middle School in Glendive, Montana.