Monday, September 1, 2014

Reaching Reluctant Teen Readers

Reaching Reluctant Teen Readers
by David Riley

‘What’s the name of the book we’ve been reading all term, Jonah?’
Empty stare.
‘How about I give you a clue? It starts with the letter “T”.’
‘How about you just give me any word that starts with the letter “T”? Can you do that, Jonah?’
‘Do you even know what the letter “T” looks like?’
‘Don’t mess with me Miss, you’ll regret it.’
‘Oh regret it, will I! Get out of my class, Jonah, I don’t want to see you in here. Get out, now!’ 
from TV series, Summer Heights High
I’m a high school Drama and English teacher here in South Auckland and I’ve worked with Polynesian students for 17 years. I love working with them!

But I have a lot of teacher friends, in NZ and in Australia, who find working with Polynesian young people to be a real challenge. Jonah Takalua to them is not a fictional creation – he’s a real kid in the back row!

One of the biggest challenges is finding ways to connect learning in class with these young people’s lives. As a teacher of literature, that includes finding stunning reading material.

Have you had this experience?

You show your students an inspirational film about reading by Dr. Ben Carson. Then you read them an article that explains how New Zealand Warriors league players read as part of their everyday lives.

You take them to the library to choose a book and watch as many of them wander around aimlessly. At the end of the library session they quickly grab anything from the shelf. In your heart you know the young person is not going to read that book.

It’s so important for us to remember that students with low literacy levels or little history of personal reading, need help to navigate most libraries. Years of failed reading comprehension tests have helped wire them to think that they can’t read.

Sadly, library experiences have often reinforced those feelings.

This book has an awesome cover!
Sure … but after reading the first paragraph, the glazed look on this student’s eyes show the language has defeated him.

Famous subject?
Definitely … but 500 pages of text?!

We have the biographies of Tana Umaga, Valerie Adams, Ruben Wiki, Jonah Lomu and other national sporting heroes in our school library. Our kids are keen to read about their heroes, and the books contain some incredible stories of achievement.

But mostly, those books stay on the library shelves.

Why? Because they’re written for adults.

Boys especially are often told they should read more. But where are the books written especially for them, about things they love and in language they can relate to?

I know that reluctant teen readers will read if they’re encouraged to believe they can be good readers, supported in their reading and if they can find captivating reading material that they can understand.

That’s what I’ve set out to do in a series of teaching resources and books written especially for them. For you. Parents, librarians and teachers - you can download free reading comprehension skills workbooks based on the All Blacks and the New Zealand Warriors from my website.

I have also begun writing a series of biographies of achievers in popular culture, beginning with Benji Marshall and Sonny Bill Williams. You can find out more about those books at my website too.

Two Year 11 boys visited my office recently, waving a copy of the Benji Marshall book. ‘This is the first book I’ve ever read right through!’ one said proudly.

A mum told me the Sonny Bill Williams book was the first book her son had voluntarily read by himself. Not only that, but he was giving his dad daily updates and having to hide it from Dad so he could finish it!

When young people experience success as readers we help them come to see reading as an amazing hobby, power and skill to have.

It’s a special feeling when you connect a book with a ‘reluctant’ reader. It’s almost as if you’re contributing to something life-changing for that young person.

As the late Maya Angelou said, “Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him.”

Bio: David Riley is a respected New Zealand high school Drama and English teacher. His innovative teaching has been frequently referred to in research on educational theory and practice. David’s specialty is working with Polynesian students. He is also a published author who writes reading resources for teachers, parents and young people.

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