How do we encourage students to read?

01.11.2018 / Mikael Davies

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only once.” So says Game of Thrones novelist, George R.R. Martin. All readers know this – the immersive experience of encountering cultures and characters beyond their own experience, the pleasure of swooping across space and time that comes with opening the covers of a book.

How to share that with students? Especially in an age where books face stiff competition from video games, big-screen blockbusters and hours of bingeworthy Netflix content?

Here are five suggestions that might encourage students to pick up a book.

Try a short story

A full novel can be a little daunting – especially one in a foreign language. A short story, on the other hand, is more manageable. It allows a hesitant reader the empowering experience of a finishing a complete narrative – even if it is only a few pages long. There are plenty of gripping short stories out there. For example:

  • Royal Jelly by Roald Dahl

A baby undergoes a bizarre transformation after eating a special food.

  • The Perfect Mark by Melodie Campbell

A con artist gets an unexpected comeuppance.

  • Kansas by Stephen Dobyns

A young hitchhiker endures a terrifying ride.

Set the first chapter as a reading task

Many stories, especially Young Adult fiction, have powerful hooks in the opening chapter. By asking students to read the first chapter, that hook gets the chance to work its magic, drawing the reader into reading the rest of the narrative.

Here are some opening lines that do an excellent job gripping the reader.

  • Wonder by R.J. Palacio

I know I’m not an ordinary ten-year-old kid. I mean, sure, I do ordinary things. I eat ice cream. I ride my bike. I play ball. I have an XBox. Stuff like that makes me ordinary. I guess. And I feel ordinary. Inside. But I know ordinary kids don’t make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds.

  • A monster calls by Patrick Ness

The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do. Conor was awake when it came.

  • The graveyard book by Neil Gaiman

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.

Once a student has read Chapter 1, they could try predicting what happens next, then read Chapter 2 to see how the story unfolds.

Watch the film or TV adaptation first

It is a truth universally acknowledged that most people prefer to read a book before it gets the big-screen treatment. That way they get to create their own personal versions of characters and settings. However, reading in a second language is less of a struggle if you have a clear idea of the story and characters. And this is precisely what a film or TV adaptation offers. In picking up the book later, there is also the pleasure of returning to a world you enjoyed visiting the first time round.

Both Wonder and A monster calls have been successfully adapted as movies and the film version of The graveyard book will be released soon.

Read comic books

Long screeds of uninterrupted text can be off-putting to readers who don’t have a strong command of English. A graphic novel, on the other hand, is full of dramatic or engaging images that entice the reader into the narrative. The focus on dialogue is also useful for students who are learning how to speak a foreign language. Graphic novels enjoyed by high-schoolers include:

  • Steins; Gate manga series by by Yomi Sarachi

A combination of mad science and fun manga.

  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrap

A young girl’s childhood in post-Islamic revolution Iran.

  • American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

The story of a second generation immigrant in the US combined with Chinese fables.

There are also comic books that deal with fact rather than fiction:

  • Pyongyang: A journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle

A Canadian writer visitor describes living in North Korea on a work visa.

  • Graphic Science: Seven Journeys of Discovery by Darryl Cunningham

A look at talented scientists sidelined because of their gender, race or lack of wealth.

Use audiobook extracts

Maybe it stems from childhood memories of bedtime stories, but there is a certain pleasure in being read to. Audiobooks offer just this experience, and it is further enriched by the wide variety of accents in which stories are read. There is the streetwise patter of L.A.’s East Long Beach in Joe Ide’s IQ detective series, the warm, Irish Brogue of Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series, the music of Indian voices in Rohinton Mistry’s A fine balance. By familiarising students with a range of accents beyond standard British and American, they will feel less intimidated when hearing unfamiliar ways of speaking. It is also a reassuring reminder that speaking with an accent – including a Finnish one – is a normal part of global English.

Here are a few more audiobooks where listeners will hear distinct styles of speech

  • The Help by Kathryn Stockett.

Black maids struggle against oppression in a small Mississippi town in the 1960s.

  • Half a yellow sun by Chimamanda Adiche

A group of diverse characters are caught up in Nigeria’s civil war.

  • Breath by Tim Winton

Two Australian boys fall under the dangerous spell of an older surfer.

Countless studies link reading for pleasure with educational and career success. If we can encourage our students to pick up a book every now and then, the benefits will be for life.