Why Students Don't Read

Last night I spoke to a group of English Education graduate students at the University of Maryland. I had originally been asked to speak about YA literature, its influence in the classroom, and my own upcoming novel, The Number 7. For a long time, I thought about what I wanted to say. Of course, YA is important in the classroom. Yes, YA is incredibly popular with young and adult readers these days. But wouldn’t these English Education majors already know these things? What did I have to add?


I thought about my own students, a population of diverse young readers. 95% of the students at my school are children of color, and 78.4% of them have or have previously received Free and Reduced Lunch (a program based on household size and income). What would my students want me to talk about? What would they want me—and those people studying to be teachers—to know? And then I realized what I wanted to address with these graduate students: why students don’t read.


I conducted an admittedly simple survey of 9th grade English students at my school, asking two classes (one Honors and one On-level/Co-taught) why they did or did not read for fun. The results weren’t too shocking.


In the Honors class, 48% of the students stated they read for fun while 52% of the students admitted they don’t. Those results weren’t too discouraging. At least nearly 50% of the class enjoys reading, right? The On-level/Co-taught results were a little more disheartening, but, again, not too surprising. 72% of the On-level/Co-taught students admitted they don't read for fun.


72% of the On-level/Co-taught students admitted they don’t read for fun.

Then I looked at the reasons the students in both classes cited why they don’t read. The overwhelming majority answer (93% in Honors and 83% in On-level/Co-taught)? Reading is boring and there aren’t any interesting books to read.


…So why is reading boring for my students? Why don’t they read for fun? Maybe because the majority of books available to them are about kids who don’t look like, sound like, or act like them. A few facts to consider:


·      In 2012, of the 3,600 children’s books reviewed by the Cooperative Children's Book Center, 3% were about African-Americans, 1.5% were about Latinos, less than 1% were about Native Americans, and 2% were about Asian Pacific Americans. That means the remaining 93% of books reviewed were about Caucasians.

·      Children of color and the poor make up more than half the children in the United States, yet when the Common Core State Standards recommended 171 texts for elementary children in 2009, only 18 texts were by authors of color, and “few books reflected the lives of children of color and the poor.”

·      “Too often children of color and the poor have window books into a mostly white and middle-and-upper-class world.” Children of all races need a healthy supply of “window” books and “mirror” books.


In his New York Times article, “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?”, author Walter Dean Myers contemplates, “Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some of our children are not represented in those books?” We ask ourselves why our students don’t like to read, and the answer is simple. Because we ask them to read about Holden Caulfield and Hester Prynne and Jay Gatsby. Who of us can actually say we can relate to any of those characters? Not I.


So how can we incorporate the new #WeNeedDiverseBooks initiative inside and outside of classrooms?


Here are a few ideas:

1.     Visual representation on open spaces. Decorate your refrigerators, your bulletin boards, your chalkboards and whiteboards with diverse titles and covers and authors. Some teachers devote entire bulletin boards to diverse titles. Parents can decorate bedroom walls with diverse book posters. Show young people what is available, what’s out there, what they might identify with.

2.     Build a diverse bookshelf. Ask yourself, “Does my book shelf contain books with characters of color? LGBTQ? Differently-abled? Does it include books with main characters of color? LGBTQ? Differently-abled?

3.     Utilize all the materials available to you on the We Need Diverse Books Tumblr site. Like flowcharts that help young people identify books they’ll enjoy.

4.     Think about how we communicate books to young people. Instead of saying a book is “about a girl in Ancient China trying to find good fortune with Chinese folktales woven throughout the story.” Try, “It’s an adventure story! The main character saves a dragon and they travel together on a great journey!”

5.     Talk to the young people in your life about what they’re already reading. After all, they’re our best YA recommenders.


In his book, Two Boys Kissing, David Levithan sums up the need for diverse books so completely and fantastically, I can’t simply summarize it. I must quote it. The book, narrated by a Greek chorus of the generation of gay men who died from the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s, speaks directly to the modern-day reader. The chorus declares, “We know that some of you are still scared. We know that some of you are still silent. Just because it’s better now doesn’t mean that it’s always good…We wish we could offer you a creation myth, an exact reason why you are the way you are, why when you read this sentence, you will know it’s about you.” This is what we need. We need young people to see themselves in the books they read.


And how lucky for us—educators, authors, parents, friends—that we can be the people who guide them there.