Teaching the Pleasures of Reading

By Ross Robertson, RMDS Middle School English Teacher

This fall, visitors to Ring Mountain’s middle school English classroom will notice some big changes from last year. Couches, beanbags, leather chairs, and ottomans create comfy nooks and corners to relax in. A thousand or so books now line the shelves of a new middle school lending library. And for the first fifteen minutes of every English class, the students and I settle in, open our books, and get lost together in the quiet joys of reading.

At the Stanford Teaching Festival this summer, I learned about a slew of recent research highlighting the central importance of reading in language acquisition, and I came back inspired to set up a new “Free Voluntary Reading” program at RMDS. If the first few weeks are any indication, it’s going to be a fabulous addition to the curriculum.

According to this growing body of research, as outlined by linguist Stephen Krashen of USC in books and articles like The Power of Reading and “The Pleasure Hypothesis,” the most important factors in language development are access to books, the space and time to read them, and the positive modeling of both peers and adults. Unlike with verbal communication, we aren’t “hardwired” to read. It’s something that has to be taught. What’s more, we have to learn not just how to do it, but how to love it.

That’s why good sustained silent reading (SSR) programs emphasize free choice on the part of students and steer completely clear of measurement or reward. Students are encouraged to read the way adults read, skipping around, following their own interests, and choosing for themselves how to navigate the near-infinite territory of words. And there are no book reports to write. The only requirements are that they spend that fifteen minutes reading and don’t distract their peers from doing the same.

Of course, this daily silent reading time hasn’t replaced the rest of our curriculum, which centers around works of literature the whole class reads, discusses, and writes about—and still includes plenty of “direct instruction” of things like writing mechanics, grammar, vocabulary, and critical analysis.

The concept that’s shifted my understanding of the ideal balance of activity in the English is Steven Krashen’s “complexity argument”:  because language itself is so inherently complex, it’s less effective to try to break it into parts and teach it to students piecemeal than it is for them to simply absorb it directly through reading.

As much intuitive sense as this makes to me, I was still amazed to learn that reading practice is not only the best way to increase reading fluency, but also to improve vocabulary, spelling and grammar ability, and even writing style. Likewise, while writing helps us sharpen our communication skills, develop our problem-solving ability, and organize our thinking, it’s really reading that shapes our appreciation of written style, tone, and voice.

Reading, more than anything, is the richest available pathway into the vast mosaic of language. And teaching the pleasure of reading is perhaps the best way to ensure that our kids become readers for life.

Come by the classroom during first or second period, peek through the window, and witness the magic for yourself. Most days, the focus and flow is contagious. One seventh grader who took my meditation elective last year even exclaimed to me, with palpable wonder in his voice, “Mr. Robertson, it’s like we’re meditating in there!” Less than a week into our new program, I had to agree with him. Even an old hand like me, it turns out, can fall in love all over again with the pleasure of reading.

Ross Robertson holds a BA from Emory University and an MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics from Naropa University. He is in his second year of teaching at Ring Mountain Day School.