The Good Fight: 8 Ways to Get Middle Schoolers to Read

Quizzical Look

Middle schoolers. I love them. They can be a jumble of hormones, feelings, doubts, defiance, humor, ambivalence, aloofness, and questions. Little by little they’re leaving behind childhood for the teenage years. The late Sister Helene Fee, IHM, was principal of our school for many years and encountered more than her share of middle schoolers. She used to hand out to their parents a wonderful little essay called “The Cat Years” during the back-to-school meeting in August. It sums up what those parents were about to experience.

I see a version of “The Cat Years” in our library. Students who couldn’t wait to check out a book from pre-kindergarten all the way through fifth grade now come to the library and look at me like I’m insane when I suggest they use silent reading time for silent reading.

Quizzical Look
You want us to read? In the library?

I’m not talking about children who have learning differences that make reading difficult. That’s a much more complex topic. I’m talking about those who read with little or no difficulty but who have lost their interest in reading. For parents and teachers, getting those 11- to 14-year-olds to read can be a battle, but it’s a battle worth fighting. It doesn’t have to be all-out war.  Here’s what we can do to give ourselves an edge in the battle.

  1. Take away the no-time excuse. This one is probably the most prevalent and yet the easiest to fix. Everyone has 20 minutes to read most days of the week. If a middle schooler can’t eke out that kind of time, perhaps parent and child need to sit down and see where their time is being spent and what can be juggled or cut out.
  2. Eliminate distractions. Most people (myself included) have nearly uninterrupted access to electronic distractions. We can watch TV pretty much anywhere at any time. That goes for playing video games and browsing social media. If this is the culprit robbing your child of reading time and attention, consider placing limits. You might be the bad guy temporarily, but it’s for a good cause.
  3. Provide access to reading material. You needn’t break the bank buying books. Public and school libraries can be your best friend. Make a date to browse the stacks for favorite topics, genres, and authors. Too busy to browse? Let your child spend a little time at home on your public library’s online catalog and make a list of titles, authors, and call numbers so you can get in and out quickly. Or, check a list of recommended titles like those you can find on Goodreads.com.
  4. Give the adolescent people what they want. I seldom ask students of this age “What do you like to read?” The answer will often be a stonewalling “Nothing.” Instead, I ask them about hobbies and interests, likes and dislikes. With that information and a catalog search, we usually find a winner. Once you have that, pile on.
    A great series can be the answer for middle-school readers.
    A great series can be the answer for middle-school readers.

    If they like graphic novels, find as many as you can. Sports? Mike Lupica might become their go-to author. Video gamers might like a fiction series with dystopian themes like The Giver, The Hunger Games, Legend, Fever Crumb, or Shadow Children.

  5. Make reading socially acceptable. Lots of kids this age don’t want to be seen as uncool and sometimes (to my amazement) reading gets tagged as uncool. It doesn’t have to be that way. Try adding a social aspect to make reading more appealing. Get together with other middle-schoolers and their parents for occasional book swaps, or start a book club. It can be as infrequently as monthly or quarterly. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There are tried-and-true ways to make this happen.
  6. Share the books you loved at that age. I am thrilled beyond words that our three copies of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders have been in almost constant circulation since last spring. I told some sixth-graders that when I was in junior high (the prehistoric version of middle school), I holed up in my bedroom and read that book in one day, and then cried my seventh-grade eyes out. That got the ball rolling. Now it’s making the round with eighth-graders. I’m trying to get them to read Betsy Byars’ The Summer of the Swans, but the dated cover makes it a harder sell.
  7. Read together. Try to find the lovable puppy hiding beneath the surface of that aloof cat. I know this is something I beat into the ground. It’s been in past posts, and will be in future ones. Believe it or not, they want to be read to. I have proof.
    Your middle-school child might just be okay with being read to.
    Your middle-school child might just be okay with being read to. These seventh-graders are.

    For a back-to-library assignment, one of the things I asked my seventh- and eighth-graders to do was to write what they would like us to do during library time this year. I was pleasantly surprised that many students said they wanted me to read to them.

  8. Communicate and investigate. Talk to teachers, librarians, and other parents of middle schoolers to see what has worked for them. Investigate blogs and articles. If you’re having this issue, you know many other parents have faced the same problem. Kids continue to read so someone somewhere is having success.

I love a good quote about reading. Even more so when it’s from a great author like Kate DiCamillo who said, “Reading should not be presented to children as a chore or duty.  It should be offered to them as a precious gift.” And what parent would miss the opportunity to give such a gift?

Until next time, keep reading!

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Love Your School Library

That new book smell is everywhere. The posters are up. The books are on display. Student library accounts have been added or updated. Lesson plans are (almost) finished. Getting ready for a new year in the school library is akin to getting ready for Christmas, and the night before school begins is a sort of Christmas Eve, full of preparation and anticipation.

The story corner is waiting for children like a decked-out Christmas tree.
The story corner is waiting for children like a decked-out Christmas tree on Christmas Eve.

Harold Howe II (1918-2002), author and former U.S. Commissioner of Education, said “What a school thinks about its library is a measure of what it feels about education.” Even if your livelihood doesn’t depend on the existence of a school library as mine does, I think many of you can agree with Mr. Howe.

But the sad fact is not all schools have libraries. Those that do are fortunate, especially if students, like at our school, have library as a weekly class, and can also make a quick trip when it’s not their designated day to take out or return books.

Every level of school represents a student population with a wide range of interests and abilities to work with. Ultimately, the goal is to make each student’s library time meaningful. But that requires collaboration. Students, families, teachers, and staff all have a part to play. At the beginning of each school year, librarians have the opportunity to let the students know what their role is in that partnership. Hopefully, students get the opportunity to voice their expectations, as well. So I’m putting on my cat-eye glasses and going total librarian to give you some idea of what the home piece of this puzzle is. In the interest of full disclosure, I really do have cat-eye glasses. So trendy.

  1. Read, read, read. This is the most important item on the list. Children who see their role models reading are more likely to read on their own. As a parent or guardian, or just someone loved by an impressionable little human, you’re automatically a role model. Books, magazines, newspapers –hardcopy or electronic – all count. And whether or not you read for yourself, at the very least, read to and with your children. No matter what.
    The great family tradition of story time, circa 1975. My parents and little brothers enjoying the great Richard Scarry.
    The great family tradition of story time, circa 1975. My parents and little brothers enjoying the great Richard Scarry.

    You’re tired, busy, stressed, frazzled. Do it anyway. The littlest littles will love having that time with you and remember it fondly when they aren’t little anymore. And when they’re not so little, it’s a wonderfully sneaky way to get them to sit down and have time with you. After reading, talk about what they read. Get their opinions and get them to make predictions. It’ll help them comprehend the story better and give you a little more insight into the wonderful people they’re becoming.

  2. Participate. Does your school library need volunteers at the circulation desk, with shelving, or during the book fair? Do you have time in your schedule? It may be as much as a couple of hours a week or as little as an hour a year. But you, your child, and your child’s school library will benefit from it.
    Volunteer in your school's library, or just visit.
    Volunteer in your school’s library, or just visit.

    This might be the hardest one for most families. Your librarian understands. We have multiple commitments, too. At least don’t be a stranger. Stop by the library during open house or other school events and say hello.

  3. Know your due dates. This is important for students and their parents. The younger the student, the more the onus is on the parent/guardian to know due dates. Decide in your household who bears what portion of that responsibility. A good way to keep track of due dates is to note them on a calendar (paper or electronic). Let your children do it, and it’ll make them more part of the process. These days not all libraries stamp due dates in the books. They just give you a receipt (to lose). In our school library, we’re stampers. Old school works for us for some things.
  4. Think of overdue notices as gentle reminders. That’s really what they are. Really. I jokingly call them nasty notes, but they aren’t.
    Overdue books? It doesn't have to get ugly.
    Overdue books? It doesn’t have to get ugly.

    Librarians just want to make sure the books are available to others as quickly as possible. Also remember that these notices are often automatically generated, so your child is likely to get one if the due date coincides with a school absence. If it’s a hardcopy given to your child, let him or her know that it’s important to bring it home.

  5. Let your librarian know (gently, like an overdue book reminder) if you believe a damage/overdue/lost book notice was received erroneously. We’re human. Mostly. We make mistakes. Especially during book fair.
  6. Return damaged books for repairs. People have the best intentions when they try to repair school library books, but it’s not a good idea. Send it back with a note about the damage so it doesn’t accidentally get checked in and shelved in damaged condition. If it can’t be repaired, don’t be surprised to get a bill for the cost to replace the book.

    All in a day's work!
    All in a day’s work!
  7. Let the librarian replace lost or damaged items. It will probably eventually be on your nickel, but don’t buy a replacement copy of a lost or damaged library item unless you’ve made arrangements with your librarian. Replacing a library-bound edition with a mass market paperback? Nope.

Happy new school year! I hope this list is helpful. Until next time, keep reading!