Mrs. Mason was “the perfect reading ambassador,” said Sandra Martin-Chang, recalling an early reading role model, her high school English and drama teacher. “She encouraged me to read excellent books with great storylines. We read The Handmaid’s Tale, and it was fabulous.… We’d envision it first and then think about how to enact it and bring it to life.”
Now a professor of education at Concordia University, Martin-Chang studies how reading storybooks and novels influences cognitive development.
In a new study published in Reading and Writing, she and her colleagues found significant differences between students who read for pleasure outside of class—immersing themselves in fantasy novels or spy thrillers, for example—and those who primarily read books to satisfy school assignments. Not only was there a powerful link between reading for fun and stronger language skills, but students who disliked reading frequently attributed their negative outlook to experiences they had in classrooms. Too much emphasis on analyzing the compositional nuts and bolts of texts and reading merely to absorb information came at a psychological cost, the researchers found, as students disengaged from voluntary reading.
In the study, Martin-Chang and her colleagues surveyed 200 university undergraduates, asking them about their reading interests, how often they read for pleasure, what motivated them, and what experiences helped shape their attitudes toward reading. They were also asked to identify authors they had read in the past—a proxy for measuring how many books they had read. The young adults then took a series of tests to gauge their reading ability.
“We found that often children’s experience in elementary school is far more positive, and then it drops in high school,” said Martin-Chang. While children in kindergarten and early elementary school tend to read storybooks as they develop their reading skills—often sharing the experience with an adult—by high school, the nature of reading changes as students are expected to read a steady diet of more challenging, information-rich texts. Somewhere during that transition, a love of reading seems to fade.
In the study, 35 percent of students pinpointed a specific reason: They didn’t enjoy reading because “being asked to analyze books in high school made it less pleasurable.”
But analyzing the elements of good writing—how persuasion works, how figurative language can elevate texts—is essential to teaching kids the full range of their expressive potential, and Martin-Chang isn’t suggesting that we read only for fun. “Competence is very, very important. We can’t skip straight to books children love without teaching them how to do it right,” she said. She likens reading to eating a well-balanced diet: “The people who say chocolate is good for you don’t recommend eating it to the exclusion of all other things.” Focusing primarily on analyzing texts and gathering information—a shift that tends to occur in middle and high school—can send the signal that reading is merely a utilitarian undertaking, robbing it of its powerful connection to human imagination, passion, and creativity, making it a lot less desirable.
We need to take reading for fun as seriously as we take academic reading, if we’re going to sustain voluntary reading through middle school and high school, and into adulthood.
Expand Their Options
For Martin-Chang, reading for pleasure isn’t a diversion from rigorous academics—it’s a gratifying form of cognitive exercise, one that is both enjoyable and intellectually beneficial.
“We don’t just want kids exercising in gym class, we want them to continue to exercise when they get home,” said Martin-Chang. “So it’s the same with reading. In school, we want to show them a range of things that hopefully they’ll pick up, go home, and continue to do on their own time.”
Even light reading provides a host of benefits, increasing verbal and creative skills, nourishing our capacity for empathy, and even reducing prejudice against stigmatized groups—all skills that are developed as readers become accustomed to inhabiting unfamiliar worlds, seeing things from new perspectives, and contemplating how a chain of events can lead to unforeseen outcomes.
Yet reading for fun—particularly the kinds of books that aren’t part of classical literature or that don’t carry literary prestige—is often considered less useful. “It’s a false dichotomy,” said Martin-Chang. “People feel like we either let the kids be creative, do what they want, and we give them choice, or we get serious about things and they excel and they’re a good student. It’s serious or it’s fun. And that dichotomy is completely misguided.”
That’s why providing students with a rich and varied reading diet can make a difference. “Offer more choice,” said Martin-Chang. Introduce students to Romeo and Juliet, but give them the option to read The Fault in Our Stars as well; let them read comic books and manga, sports writing and plays, sci-fi and horror novels. In other words, it seems clear that if we want students to build literacy skills, it’s better for them to consume dozens of texts that they love, connect with, or feel inspired by, instead of grudgingly reading one because it’s assigned.
While children’s literacy skill development begins at home, teachers play a profoundly important part in encouraging students to love reading, a point that Martin-Chang makes clear when she’s training preservice teachers.
“People will either talk about teachers that loved reading, encouraged them as readers and really lit a fire, or they’ll talk about teachers who did the exact opposite,” said Martin-Chang. “They'll talk about teachers that took something that was once pleasurable and diminished it, or they’ll talk about teachers that didn’t seem to like reading themselves, or made them feel like less of a reader.”
In the study, Martin-Chang points to research on preservice teachers showing that “over half reported receiving little to no enjoyment from reading.” The teachers often attributed their disinterest to experiences they had in school, a finding that Martin-Chang and her colleagues called “especially concerning,” alluding to the cyclical nature of reading habits. “Teachers carry immense power in influencing students’ attitudes toward reading,” the researchers concluded.
So part of Martin-Chang’s mission is to convince teachers—and everyone else—that there’s tremendous value in giving students more choice in what they read, including books that may appear to be self-indulgent or have little intellectual merit.
In the classroom, said Martin-Chang, model a love of reading—go beyond grammar and meaning and inhabit the narrative worlds on the page. Emphasize choice, and give students opportunities to read and share during class time. Teachers have shared their own strategies to promote choice: Expand your classroom library beyond the traditional literary canon, and make sure it includes books that reflect students’ backgrounds, cultures, experiences, and passions. Offer plenty of ungraded ways for them to think about their reading: To ensure that they do the reading without the pressure of grades, pair kids up as reading accountability partners; to enliven and dramatize books, let them act out scenes; to build a thriving community of readers, set up book clubs or book tastings. Avoid rote or mechanical exercises like reading logs, which can create the impression that reading is a chore to be completed and then quickly set aside.
And if books aren’t normally a part of your curriculum, you can still show an interest in what your students are reading by making connections to a lesson. Start a science experiment by referencing Harry Potter, for example, or use dystopian novels to discuss totalitarianism, propaganda, or human rights.
“It’s important to teach children how to read,” said Martin-Chang. “And once we do that, we need to make it worthwhile. We’ve got to give them a reason. We’ve got to give them a view once they climb that mountain.”