End Literacy Shaming
What "Counts" as Reading?
Quick—what's your guilty reading pleasure?
Until recently, my answer would have been Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume or the Twilight series by Stephanie Meyers. I read several Blume books when I was an adolescent, and as much as I was engaged by them, I also felt ashamed—here I was, a boy, reading a book for girls. And it mentioned things like busts! I could never admit that to my friends, or to any adult who might have asked. Years later, when the Twilight series was all the rage with my students, I reluctantly picked them up so I could take part in their conversations. Yet even though I enjoyed reading them in the moment, it seemed shameful that as an adult I enjoyed a book written for teenagers—particularly as the heavily romantic plot implied it was "meant" for girls.
I carried around shame about these reading experiences for quite a while, until I realized what a ridiculous idea that was: to be embarrassed about reading, particularly when it was important to me or my students as a young person trying to figure out what was going on at an awkward stage in life. I also realized I was reinforcing this shaming of literacy in my own students. I would make sarcastic remarks about books I thought were silly, juvenile, or just about topics I didn't enjoy.
As educators, we can undermine students' willingness to read when we let our own reading prejudices take precedence over encouragement. By imposing rules and guidelines for what "counts" as reading, especially for supposedly "independent" reading, we create a perfect recipe for destroying interest and motivation. Professionally, there are several important topics to consider when it comes to ending literacy shaming: professional expectations, especially about "acceptable" formats; Lexile and other levels for reading; and student reading agency.
Professional Expectations and Text Formats
Reading is the foundation on which nearly every other element of education is built. When discussing how educated a population is, one of the most frequently-cited statistics is the literacy rate. Language arts is one of two universally tested subjects in the United States. Yet despite this emphasis on literacy, there is a mismatch between what educators and parents profess to want—students who like to read—and the actions we take to engage students with reading. In my professional opinion, enforcing requirements for independent reading and inflicting artificial tasks around reading is the best way to get kids to hate reading. Stakeholders in the educational process—librarians, teachers, administrators, board members, parents—need to step back and ask whether assigning grades is more important than encouraging students to love reading and learning.
The purpose of having kids read is to help them take in knowledge and information. For some reason, though, there is an excessive focus on format. Students are given independent reading assignments that remove the independence by requiring them to read certain types of books and formats, with an often-unstated-but-understood minimum number of printed words. Let's consider as examples graphic novels and audiobooks.
Graphic novels are slowly fighting their way onto shelves, despite being one of educators' and parents' most-maligned reading formats. The main objections to letting kids read graphic novels seem to fall into two main camps, both of which seem a little silly. One is that graphic novels are "too easy to read." But, while there might not be as much text for readers to ingest, graphic novels quite literally paint their worlds and characters in a vivid and detailed manner, with robust story structure, vocabulary, and style.
The other main objection seems to be that kids enjoy graphic novels. Why should this be seen as a negative? Graphic novel readers carry around stacks of material because they can't wait to continue their reading! I would also challenge anyone who takes issue with the notion of the graphic novel as a "real" text to peruse award-winning artist and world-renowned lecturer Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, which explores the depths of comics and the vast range of symbolism and intellect that go into creating even some of the simplest comic strips.
Audiobooks also need some reinforcement as an acceptable text choice. If we see a child listening intently as someone reads a story, we usually find that a sign of important mental engagement by the kid—so why do some educators dismiss or dislike the audiobook as a format for reading? Audiobooks also offer students another avenue of accessibility, opening options for students with visual impairments, as well as cognitive or processing differences that make print text less accessible. And for all readers, audiobooks offer excellence in a different modality.
I can hear the howls of dismay: "But what about the difficulty of the texts? How will students improve if they're not reading at their reading levels?"
Personally, I see Lexiles as a suggestion for whether a text might be appropriate to a reader, not a hard-and-fast measure of the appropriateness of a title for either an individual or a group. It's important to remember that most reading levels, particularly Lexile levels, are quantitative rather than qualitative. These measures take into account word counts and word length, sentence length, and word repetition, not necessarily measures of quality or how engaging the text is.
By building students' sense of agency, educators can empower them to feel like they are actual readers. Give readers choices, don't criticize, and help students find what works for them. Encourage abandonment of books that aren't working, rather than making students feel like failures for not completing something they started.
When students have control of their reading, it not only empowers them, it also helps to build reading communities. Ideally, reading is a social activity. Giving students agency over what they read is an excellent way to get them excited about—and talking about—what they read. When we try to force a particular genre, style, or reading level on students, what we're subliminally saying is, "I am the authority, and you don't know what you're doing. If you don't like or are not good at what I give you, there must be something wrong with you, because I know what's best." But, the truth of the matter is, we DON'T know what's best for every reader. We may have some broad conceptions and knowledge of literature, but we don't know every like and dislike, strength and struggle. Let's respect every reader's uniqueness and give all readers the autonomy to find what works for them.
Another element of agency is the opportunity to explore topics that students may fear could be viewed as shameful. Being able to read what they want can be the only way for students to learn about worlds and experiences beyond their own. Self-directed reading can help readers see that what is important to them is also important to others, even though the people around them might suggest otherwise. That could mean reading about politicians who are conservative or liberal. It might mean learning about LGBTQ+ issues. By providing access rather than restrictions, we are letting students know that it's okay for them to learn and grow.
What Does It Mean for You?
The easiest way to make reading fun is to let kids read whatever they want to read. They will self-level. They will find the things that work for them. As a school librarian, facilitate, but don't mandate. Just as importantly, advocate to end literacy shaming. It doesn't take much to derail some students. Talk to your colleagues, talk to administrators, talk to parents—help them see the value in enabling reading and readers through access, agency, and intellectual freedom.
Reading is good. It's something we want to encourage and celebrate. It took me fifteen years to admit that I enjoyed Twilight, and more than thirty to admit I liked Judy Blume. Let's not make our students wait decades, like I did, before they are willing to discuss the books—and the issues, topics, and ideas they are built around—that are important to them.