Book Reports Educational Philosophy ELA English Language Arts Learning Literature New Teacher Reading Teaching

Book reports: perhaps the biggest waste of time

As a young teenager I was blessed to live near a great library. At least twice a week my mother used to drop us off at the Huntington Beach Central Library. It has small ponds, plants, and comfortable bean bag chairs to snuggle into. I remember walking down the book stacks running my right hand across the spines of the book like you would with a stick on a picket fence.

Central Library

At home, when my father walked in the door, we would talk about the newspaper.  We would laugh over Art Buchwald or talk about the most current Jim Murray story in the LA Times sports section. After our nightly showers my mother would let us stay up an extra half-hour if we were reading in bed. I grew up loving to read. I knew no other way.

I get that some students don’t like to read. If you don’t read quickly it’s not very enjoyable. If there are other more interesting diversions, then reading might not be on your priority list, but I refuse to listen to my students when they say they hate reading. When I hear that I just say:

“If a boy or girl that you liked passed by you in the hall and gave you a note, you would read every word and you would read it quickly, and probably more than once. So don’t tell me you hate reading, you just hate reading anything that you don’t care about.”

***

So here is what I do and don’t do to get my students to read:

Back-to-school:

Every Back-to-School night I give my students’ parents one handout, just one. I’ve linked to the handout here.  It’s one page long. It’s full of facts and statistics including the reading load in various freshmen English classes at UC Irvine. Here is just a small sample.

“In a six-week study of college student who read 5 times a week for 15 minutes on pleasure reading, their mean reading rate rose from 210 to 348 words per minute. There are many other studies that support these results.     

The most direct correlation between students and test scores besides parental income is a child’s access to books at home. Parents do not need to spend a ton of money on books! Take your student to the library once every two weeks, subscribe to a newspaper or a magazine of the student’s choice. Go to used book stores. Former CNN anchor Bernard Shaw grew up in a poor household. He told an interviewer that his love and knowledge for world events and his extensive vocabulary was developed because his father made sure that they had the newspaper at home everyday.

If your son or daughter says that they do not have any homework in English please encourage them to turn off the TV, or computer, get off the phone and READ a book, magazine, or newspaper.

“I do not believe in mindless homework assignments, but I do believe in daily reading. “

I spend quite a bit of time at Back-to-School night talking about magazines, reading, and library cards. I think parents get the hint that it’s a big priority for me.

Extra Credit:

I currently give extra credit to students who have a public library card and who check out a book and show both to me. I give this extra credit once a semester. If I can get a student into a library for any reason, I’m happy.

Cerritos-Library-2012-7-of-16-e1330648523811

Just look at these two pictures of the Cerritos Public Library. It’s only twenty minutes away!

Cerritos Library interior

Magazines:

I used to be able to give extra credit to students who had a magazine subscription in their own name. I think magazines get short shrift in the quest for readers. My two brothers cut their reading teeth on hockey magazines and comic books. I can’t do that anymore because of an ACLU lawsuit, but I still strongly encourage students to read magazines. Here is a presentation link to some magazines that I recommend to students.

SSR:

I used to do SSR twice a week for 15-20 minutes, usually on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It was a nice start to class. But ever since we moved to a school-wide SSR program (15 minutes a day) I just have my students read for 10-15 minutes on Thursday. I mostly do this so I can walk around and see what they are reading, have conversations, make recommendations etc…

At the beginning of the year I show my students a presentation with pictures of some books I like. It takes about a class period, sometimes a little longer. I used to pull all of the books off of the school library racks and put them on a book cart and actually hold up the books, but that’s a real time killer and some students can’t see the books from the back of the room. Here is a link to my presentation so you can get an idea of what I’m talking about.

Sometimes I will hold up a book I am reading or I will share a passage from a book or have a student talk about a book and why they like it. These are informal conversations that may happen before or after SSR.

I allow magazines during SSR, but not newspapers. It’s a noise/distraction thing.

Classroom Library:

I used to have a classroom library, but I got tired of my favorite books disappearing. Even when I stamped my name in the book they disappeared. I still have a few books that I share with students when they forget their book, but I ask for them back right after SSR. I direct students to our school library. Our school library is VERY student friendly and is always mobbed. I want students to feel that energy and feel welcomed there. Sometimes, with a reluctant reader who forgot a book, I will just walk them over to the library (it’s right next door) and grab a book from the stacks and tell them “I really think you will like this book.”

Book Reports:

Book report attempt one: For my first three years of teaching students presented oral book reports in front of the class. Those were painful. The most painful part was when my students and I knew that they hadn’t read the book and we all suffered through their bald-faced lie. One student lied about having read All Quiet on the Western Front and it hurt so badly I just stopped doing this. Forever.

Book report attempt two: This one worked pretty well. In fact, it worked so well, other teachers on my staff started to do it and I’d say about a third of my twenty-three member English department does this exactly like I did or they have modified it slightly. I probably did this for about nine to ten years. If you click on this, you can see a handout detailing this book report idea. It centers on index cards, student-generated questions, and a one on one student/teacher interview at the end of each quarter.  You don’t have to finish a book, just read a certain amount of pages. I even modified it a few years later to add a style analysis component that is Honors/AP level. It can be found here. 

I kinda miss this one.

While I really miss the one-on-one discussions about books, they were very time intensive. Additionally, while I hated students lying about their book reports in front of the class, I REALLY hated having students lie to me one on one.  So eventually I just let it go.

Book report attempt three:  So I started trusting students a bit more and I went to a reading log. They filled out their log once a week during SSR. I’d check to see if they were bringing in the books they were logging about. I did this for about two years and it was okay. There was an expectation of reading, a fairly easy way to log the types of reading and how much reading and we were mostly happy. Grading these was fairly easy, but there was no real room for passion.  If you want to see an example of my reading log you can click here.

So I continued to question what I was doing as far as book reports.

***

I had a co-worker, David Penhall:  really smart, loved by students.

Dave Penhall

Dave Penhall when he started at QB for Cal Berkeley

He pushed his students to read more than any other English teacher. Often his students would be reading one book in class and one book at home; obviously he loves and values reading. I asked him one day what he does for book reports.

“Book reports?”

“Yeah book reports. You know that thing every English teacher does.”

“I don’t do them”

“What? Seriously Dave, why not?”

“Well… I realized a while ago that students who don’t like reading won’t change how they feel about reading if you give them a book report and will probably just lie about it or use a previous book, and that students who love reading will continue to read, but will appreciate not having to do book reports.”

A massive light bulb went off in my head. Sometimes when you hear something that you know is true you can feel it in your bones. My spine was humming.

So last year I quit doing them. I still do SSR, and guess what? My students who love reading continue to read, read often, and read widely. And my other students who I see with the same book all the time I notice it and try to find them something else to read.  My son loves to read and every time he is assigned a book report where he has to write or make something he just groans. I like art and making stuff, but the stuff he makes seems more like a parent pleaser or bulletin board material than something that gets him to somewhere else. I’m not saying that book reports are a complete waste of time and one can make an argument for a well-constructed book report that helps a student see connections between their book and another idea. It’s just not for me.

So if you’re an English teacher struggling with what to do for a book report assignment perhaps the answer is:

Don’t do book reports.

CalRugbyRockhampton71

PS- The picture that brought you into this article is one of Dave Penhall playing QB for Cal vs. Stanford in 1970. Dave led the Cal Bears to an upset victory over the eventual Heisman trophy winner Jim Plunkett and his Stanford Cardinals. Here is a picture of Dave with the Cal rugby team that traveled overseas to play teams from Australia and New Zealand in the 70s. You can read about it here: 

7 comments

  1. On an episode of Dan Rather Reports it was mentioned that 75% of Finns read a newspaper daily, and that they have the highest percent of library card holders of any nation. In other words, they are a nation of readers. And they have some of the highest scores on international tests.
    At my old school I recall seeing kids with A Catcher in the Rye, and some hated it. I couldn’t believe it! Then I remembered that I read it independently, not as part of an assignment (my junior english class read Huck Finn, and [ugh] A Scarlet Letter), and was able to enjoy the story and the characters without worrying about plot structure, or rising action. In the end, I think they hate the assignment, not the content. But if all you did in English class was sit, read, and discuss books… wait, that sounds awesome! Just do that!

  2. Appreciate the handout wrt daily reading – good prod at parents/guardians too. I found USSR/SSR to work best in all school settings I taught. Always a rocky start with a majority of disinterest. I would just read on through. By early October a majority had found something to read and that silence also seemed to be appreciated. I mean where can we enjoy 15 minutes of daily silence? Appreciate the book report retellings. I, too, abandoned the trade in lies. Painful? Yes. Enjoyed the post. Thank-you.

      1. Uninterrupted Sustained Silent Reading.
        This was term used in the 1980s in our school district.
        I think what it amounts to is, as you say, making spaces in classrooms for reading – the sheer pleasure of an activity for self. In our school, everyone read: janitors, school nurse, office staff, principal.

  3. I loved this post! Why? Because you agree exactly with me! Fifteen years ago, we started a compulsory 10-15 min SSR in all our English classes on a daily basis ( we have 75 min classes). It is one of the best things we ever did and there is nothing attached to it because we wanted to send the message that reading is pleasurable not just something that you have to do and answer questions on. My students read anything from chick-lit to Ripley’s. I have a classroom library with Calvin and Hobbs etc.that are falling apart but mostly we use the school library which has a HUGE selection of teen friendly books. Does everyone read all the time-hell no! But I don’t care because I know many of them will have read multiple books in a semester and I have planted the seeds. One thing that does work is having informal book talks once in awhile. Kids want to read something their friends have read or something that I really talk up like Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers or a book on probablilities called Struck by Lightning. I have had 3 students read The Glass Castle in the last 2 months on my recommendation. It sounds like you are doing similar things.

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