Booooorrrrring! Why students’ lack of interest in a text matters

February 11, 2010

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Booooorrrrring! Why students' lack of interest in a text mattersMy favorite magazine right now is The Week (motto: “All you need to know about everything that matters”). It’s a newsweekly that distills the most important opinions, ideas, and editorial content from around the world, and is so comprehensive that if you read it cover to cover, you could turn off both CNN and TMZ for entire week and still be able to chat around the watercooler. But The Week‘s most appealing quality is that carries a quarter of the heft of Glamour (my second fave mag, yes, I have diverse interests like that): it’s superthin, lightweight, and extremely dense with info. This makes it PERFECT for keeping in my purse at all times in case of a long subway ride or an “emergency” trip to Sam Ash Music that my husband must suddenly make on the way home from an afternoon of shopping in more interesting stores.

There’s one section called “The World At a Glance” that profiles the most important world news stories. Each is about 100 words long. They’re about terrifically important events: terrorism in Yemen, Iranian diplomacy, etc. I always try to make myself read that section because it’s stuff I should know, yet can’t bring myself to care about. Chastising always abounds: It’s 100 words, can you not discipline yourself for 20 seconds to read the following?

Bangkok: Weapons confiscated: The seizure of a cargo aircraft stuffed with rocket launchers and other weapons at Bangkok airport last week has stoked fears that North Korea is using illicit arms sales to fund its secret nuclear program. The Georgian-registered Ilyushin IL-76 aircraft is believed to have begun its journey in North Korea and was apparently headed to Iran. The plane was due to have refueled in Sri Lanka, but made an unscheduled stop in Bangkok. A routine search by customs officials revealed a hidden cache of 35 tons of arms. Last August, a similar cache bound for Iran was impounded in the United Arab Emirates.

I read that FOUR TIMES the other day and zoned out somewhere between “illicit arms sales” and “Ilyushin IL-76″ every single time. I finally gave up on myself and turned the page.

That’s when I started thinking about how strongly BOREDOM can block reading comprehension. Sure, our kids aren’t reading about Thai seizure of cargo aircraft, but the umpteenth fairytale or overly-detailed description of the desert might strike them as equally dull. Perhaps this explains those kids whose grades swing wildly between A’s and F’s on identically-formatted assignments. The kids LOOK like they’re paying attention and trying their best, yet they get all the answers wrong. I guarantee you I would have failed any multiple choice test on the passage about illicit arms sales, and I WANTED to understand what I read. Maybe the kids do, too. But I’ve experienced firsthand that wanting to comprehend can’t always overcome a disinterest for the subject matter.

Lesson learned: Give kids more choice about what they read. Many of the required reading passages are dull, but if two grades aren’t needed, maybe kids can pick the one they want to read. And for those instances in which all students must be reading the exact same thing at the exact same time (which is way more often than most of us would like), we need to work HARD to give kids a real purpose for reading, to intentionally pique their interest and stimulate their background knowledge.

If we don’t, they might as well being reading about a Georgian-registered Ilyushin IL-76.

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Angela Watson was a classroom teacher for 11 years and has turned her passion for helping other teachers into a career as an educational consultant based in Brooklyn, NY. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has published 3 books, launched a blog and webinar series, designs curriculum resources, and conducts seminars in schools around the world. Check out the free teacher resource pages for photos, tips & tricks, activities, printables, and more.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Lauren February 11, 2010 at 7:28 pm

What a wonderful reflection! You learn how important choice is and then don't always allow them the ability to choose. You have enlightened me…Thanks!

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2 Anonymous February 11, 2010 at 7:56 pm

I agree. I am working on my Master's project right now and focusing on Reading Workshop for English Language Learners (I'm a TESOL major)…and so much of the research I have found advocates throwing basals and other "one size/topic fits all" instruction out the window and giving the kids CHOICE in what to read…not only to help with interest but with motivation and retention too.

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3 Jim Randolph February 11, 2010 at 8:10 pm

Well said! (And I like The Week too. It's kinda like the Dailysource.org of magazines).

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4 Angela February 16, 2010 at 3:24 pm

Lauren: Exactly. We all KNOW that choice is critical, but we don't go the extra mile to provide it. It's so much easier to make everyone read the same thing at the same time, and we get caught in that trap.

Anon: You're so right about the role of choice in motivation and retention. Geez, retention–how in the world can we get kids to stay in school if they have no say in how they learn?

Jim: I hadn't heard of Dailysource.org–thanks for the tip! :-)

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