By Dr. Louise McDonald

I teach middle school, and like all of us, confront classrooms with students who read (per the STAR test) as well as college students, and others that test at the third grade level.  Circumventing the issue of test validity, many of us who teach at this level find that reading is a barrier to the types of lessons on literary analysis and source citation that the curriculum requires.

When I started teaching middle school, I came from twenty years of teaching at the university level. I was surprised to hear students tell me that they had learned to read in third grade, didn’t need to do it now, and to stop treating them like babies. I was surprised when they insisted that they had read a passage, but couldn’t tell me what had happened. Were they not paying attention? Couldn’t they read at all? Were they uncooperative? Did they not understand the vocabulary?

My internal conversation, I soon found, echoed a conversation that university professors of freshman students have every year. “The papers from 101 are abysmal!” they say to each other “What are they teaching in high school? How come they can’t [fill in the blank]?” Do students really become less prepared every year? Or look younger?

Recent research has found that as we get farther away from learning those skills ourselves (dare I say, older?), we forget our own ignorance—we even forget how much last year’s class had to learn before they got as smart as they were when we released them at the end of the year.

I don’t remember learning to read at all—certainly not the early levels. Reading was a joy and passion before I knew it. How can I understand what my struggling students feel?

Let me explain. Did you take high school Spanish? Try reading this Noble Prize-winning poem by Pablo Neruda. Really read it. Don’t just look at it and stop when you find it is in Spanish and you “don’t read” Spanish:


Un perfume como una ácida espada
de ciruelas en un camino,
los besos del azúcar en los dientes,
las gotas vitales resbalando en los dedos,
la dulce pulpa erótica,
las eras, los pajares, los incitantes
sitios secretos de las casas anchas,
los colchones dormidos en el pasado, el agrio valle verde
mirado desde arriba, desde el vidrio escondido:
toda la adolescencia mojándose y ardiendo
como una lámpara derribada en la lluvia.

“Juventud” from Canto General, 1950
Published in Selected Poems of Pablo Neruda
Edited and translated by Ben Belitt
Copyright © Fundación Pablo Neruda, 2009

If, like me, you are not fluent in Spanish, you can make out some of the nouns. Certainly there are cognates and words that we have picked up in English, so “camino” and “perfume” and “erotica” stand out. “Juventude” looks a bit like “juvenile.” You can identify the sequence of clauses. But would you be able to “analyze”? When you read the above carefully, how does it make you feel? Powerful and confident? Like I am silly for asking something like this? Are you ready to go on to the next blog post because this one isn’t any fun?

Try the translation:


Acid and sword blade: the fragrance
of plum in the pathways:
tooth’s sweetmeat of kisses,
power and spilth on the fingers,
the yielding erotic of pulps,
hayricks and threshing floors, clandestine
recesses that tempt through the vastness of houses;
bolsters asleep in the past, the bitter green valley,
seen from above, from the glasses’ concealment;
and drenching and flaring by turns, adolescence
like a lamp overturned in the rain.

“Youth” from General Song, 1950
Published in Selected Poems of Pablo Neruda
Edited and translated by Ben Belitt
Copyright © Fundación Pablo Neruda, 2009

The literary analysis writer in me gets pretty charged about this poem—wow! Doesn’t it speak to the universal experience of middle school? Look at the great images and the repetition of ideas of discovery and secrecy!

OK, so maybe the example is extreme. I don’t read Spanish easily, and Neruda is not “easy” Spanish. But my point is that reading when you do not understand is not fun and the temptation to quit is undeniable.

What about English? What about this first paragraph of Hamilton’s Federalist Papers:

After an unequivocal experience of the inefficacy of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America. The subject speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the union, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world. It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.
The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Federalist Papers, by Alexander Hamilton and John Jay and James Madison
Posting Date: December 12, 2011 [EBook #18] Release Date: August, 1991 Last Updated: July 10, 2004

Not fair! you say. This is a blog post to be read on a summer’s afternoon, not a puzzle to be untangled under a fluorescent glare in class. Reading slowly and carefully, paraphrasing in your head as the sentences get longer and longer and the clauses mount – the inward toss of the head as to the futility of soldiering on… this is what some of our students feel when you give them Rick Riordan or J.K. Rowling. It feels like work; like digging a ditch when the blisters start popping.
So how to reach them, when they say they “don’t read” and everything you do suggests this to be true? 

Yeah, that’s the trick. Here are some thoughts:

1. Give them sounds rather than text. 

OK, you say, but idle hands make mischief. I have lots of luck asking them to illustrate a scene from a book as it is read—either by them or by me—or by Jim Dale. Even if they just “doodle” their concentration improves.

2. Give them choices. 

Have students read one of, say, four books that are available. Have the students schedule their group’s reading over a certain number of weeks. I find students are less anxious when the bulk of graded work is independent, but make the groups responsible for some kind of responses/presentations together. Reading with friends and not just assigned groups has some difficulties for the teacher, but friendship compensates for the work and gives them something to discuss.

3. Read together. 

Make time for independent silent reading. And then talk about what you are each reading. Model it by reading a great YA book yourself.  I like making a big circle and talking about books and characters periodically. Get excited!

4. Write stories. 

Yes, I know, standards in the eighth grade do not include writing stories, but students are so out of touch with the creative process that digging into a character they have invented themselves can really inspire them. If you hit a wall with this, sometimes writing fan fiction is a good way to differentiate. It is a great way to teach elements of narrative and work on transitions and sequencing.
What makes you want to read a passage like the one from the Federalist Papers above? Well, being interested in history is a help, but if you aren’t? Make a game. For example, have three students paraphrase a difficult passage with “two truths and a lie.” Then have the students individually or in groups choose which one is the lie.

The possibilities are endless and teachers do them all the time. Sometimes they “take,” and sometimes not. Often, we are swimming upstream in a torrent of negative internal discourse.

I think the “take home” here is that reading can be difficult and therefore vaguely distasteful—sometimes not so “vaguely.” One of the most important gifts we can give our reluctant readers is the experience and then the memory of finding something joyful in reading.

WVCTE is wondering…How do you engage reluctant readers? What texts and strategies are reliably effective? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook

Sources Kelly Gallagher and Cris Tovani. 

Louise received a BA in political Science and International Relation from Carleton College and her PhD in Enlish/Composition, Rhetoric and Literacy. She taught at various universities until 2009, when she started teaching ELA at a middle school in Jefferson County. She finds middle school to be the perfect laboratory for learning about literacy and teaches some stuff there too!

Louise serves as Secretary and as a member of the Executive Committee of WVCTE. 

Categories: Blog

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