In this guest column, a UGA professor says teachers in graduate school increasingly report to him that students in their classes have announced.  “I don’t read. Don’t try to make me. I won’t do it.”

When kids refuse to read and nothing will persuade them

University of Georgia education professor Peter Smagorinsky writes a fascinating and troubling piece today on teachers who are increasingly dealing with students who just won’t read.

The students can read, but they won’t.

In its recent Kids & Family Reading Report, Scholastic found that reading for pleasure slows down at age 9. 

According to the report: 

A child turning 9 is generally found in a third-grade classroom, a critical year in a child’s academic journey. And yet the Kids & Family Reading Report finds it is just at that stage that children's frequency of reading books for fun begins to drop: only 35% of 9-year-olds report reading 5–7 days a week compared to 57% of 8-year-olds.

The Kids & Family Reading Report has shown a child’s attitude towards reading enjoyment and importance is a predictor of reading frequency, which is why it also is striking to note the drop between ages 8 and 9 in the percentage of kids who think reading books for fun is extremely or very important (from 65% to 57%). Similarly, the number of kids who say they love reading drops significantly from 40% among 8-year-olds to 28% among 9-year-olds. What is to be done about the "decline by nine"? Rarely do we see a rebound from these benchmarks as kids grow older.

WIth that background, here is Smagorinsky’s essay.

By Peter Smagorinsky

Over the summer, I spoke with three English/Language Arts teachers from very different sorts of Georgia schools. One African American man in his 40s teaches in a rural high school enrolling primarily impoverished African-American students. One White woman in her 50s teaches in a rural middle school enrolling primarily impoverished white students. One white woman in her late 20s teaches in a high school in a medium-sized city with mixed demographics. 

One has earned a Ph.D. from my department; one is working toward a doctorate in my department; one was credentialed in my department. Each is an outstanding teacher, with one recently named his school’s Teacher of the Year.

All three, in conversations independent of one another, told essentially the same baffling story, and hoped that I had some ideas on what to do. Some students in their classes, they said, have announced to them something along the lines of, “I don’t read. Don’t try to make me. I won’t do it.” 

And indeed, they don’t. 

I’ve tried to think of what the options are for teachers whose students refuse to do what their teachers say they must do. I’m not talking about kids who balk when teachers waste their time with busywork, or who don’t want to participate in ill-conceived activities, such as having a mock slave auction in which white kids bid on ownership of black kids. I’m talking about kids who very simply refuse to read, which is what you do in English classes. 

English majors might be reminded of Herman Melville’s character Bartleby the Scrivener, whose occupation involves drafting legal contracts. He takes a job in the law office of the story’s narrator, and initially is an industrious and dependable, if morbidly quiet, writer. But the lawyer soon becomes bewildered by Bartleby’s response to all entreaties to do his job, or much of anything, after this encouraging start. 

On 21 occasions during the short story, when given a task, Bartleby simply says, “I would prefer not to,” and refuses to act. Yet he dutifully comes to the office daily, ultimately creating a “hermitage” and living there after hours, preferring not to leave, yet also preferring not to work. 

The lawyer finally moves his offices altogether as a way of ridding himself of Bartleby. After he vacates the office, a new business tenant in the space finds that Bartleby has remained and won’t leave. Following his arrest for vagrancy, Bartleby ends up wasting away and perishing in prison. His former employer, upon learning his fate, concludes with the lament: “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”

These teachers’ students are somewhat more defiant than the unemotional Bartleby, although not in an especially hostile or confrontational way. They simply refuse to read and can’t be forced to any more than the horse brought to water can be required to drink. What is a conscientious teacher to do when students refuse to read, a seemingly necessary thing to do in order to complete most schoolwork?

One solution is for teachers to pry kids’ eyeballs open, hold their heads in front of a book, and force them to stare at it. That approach, however, might result in more lawsuits than reading.

Teachers could also flunk students who prefer not to do the basic things that people do in school, as recommended by teacher and author Jessica Lahey. As happiness guru Gretchen Rubin wrote about this response, “to help children succeed, we must allow them to fail.” Moreover, failure allows people to undertake “lives of independence, creativity, and courage.” Tough love in the form of providing the consequence of failure will teach the kids to buckle down and do their work, lest they fall into the habit of refusing to meet their responsibilities and fade into Bartleby’s state of oblivion.

That approach surely is appealing. It relieves the teacher of responsibility. It makes kids accountable for their own problems and performances, in order to cultivate long-term developmental potential and strong character. 

But many teachers interpret their students’ failures as failures of their own teaching. They wouldn’t find standing tall with tough love to be sufficient. They couldn’t just watch a kid pass through without trying to do something to spark an interest in, or create a need for, reading. If they can’t do that, they feel that they are the ones failing. The teachers I spoke said they thought there was something they could be doing, but that they couldn’t figure out what it is. Neither could I.

And let’s not overlook the consequences of kids refusing to read on their standardized test scores, and how those scores reflect on individual teachers and their schools. Or the likely administrative interpretation that they’re ineffective if they fail too many students. Should teachers be fired or paid less if their students won’t read, and their grades and scores are low? 

When I was in the classroom in the 1970s and 1980s, my usual response to kids who were reluctant to read was to help them find something that they’d be interested in reading about. That guidance often came in conflict with the curriculum, which required that they read “The Great Gatsby,” “A Separate Peace,” or other classic novel from distant eras written in prose whose cadence, structure, and vocabulary were alien to their ways of speaking. Even good students occasionally took short cuts by getting Cliff’s Notes, which claim a “mission of changing lives by fostering passionate, curious learners” and not a mission of helping kids pass tests without reading the books.

And yet for these teachers, interest-driven reading gets little traction with their students. They’re not rejecting the idea of pursuing their interests. They reject reading itself. “I don’t read. Don’t try to make me. I won’t do it.”

There are many plausible causes for these kids’ refusal to read. Kids watch too much TV. They would rather play video games than read books. They have been socialized to the Internet with its sound-byte approach to information, and so avoid in-depth reading. They prefer social media and its image-and-sound-oriented content to the challenges of reading more demanding texts. The kids come from families where people don’t read, and they don’t see why people think that reading is so important. Their generation just doesn’t live up to the standard that our generation set; which, I should note, has been the complaint of every generation since humans first had children to complain about. 

I’m sure that many things have contributed to the altered environment in which kids grow up. What remains is the fact that some kids say they don’t and won’t read, which is a different problem from the one teachers face when kids can’t read. Teachers can address that problem strategically. Some of the best teachers I know, however, struggle with what to do when kids won’t read. 

And so, do I. 

Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.