Youth interviewed for the Washington Student Oral Histories Project often described a ‘perfect storm’ of factors—school, social, personal—that led them down the pathway to dropping out of school. To explore school-related factors, we asked these youth a number of questions about academic topics, with a particular emphasis on reading skills and development. Our goal was to better understand how disconnected youth experienced reading, how they saw themselves as readers, and how these perceptions of reading may have shifted over time from early childhood through adolescence. Across the more than 50 stories shared, a consistent pattern emerged: As youth became increasingly disconnected from school, they also became increasingly disengaged from reading. This post explores that pattern.
Reading Engagement in Elementary School
Almost every youth we interviewed possessed fond memories of early elementary grades, and many could recount positive associations with early reading activities, such as trips to the library, story time, or favorite picture books. As one youth described:
“I liked reading. We had reading time in the morning and I always thought that was cool. And I liked seeing friends…In the beginning years, it was the teacher [who]would read to us and like fourth, fifth and sixth grade we got to read ourselves.”
Perhaps buoyed by early positive classroom experiences with reading and books, youth often considered themselves ‘good readers’ in elementary school. They felt they could read words, finish books, and keep up with peers. Interestingly, youths’ perspectives seemed to emphasize decoding (reading the words) over comprehension (understanding the meaning) as what constituted a ‘good reader.’ Nevertheless, many youth held positive perceptions of reading in this early stage of schooling.
Middle School: The Great Disconnect from Reading
Youths’ stories suggest that as they became disconnected from school they also became disengaged from reading. The transition from elementary to middle school seemed to impact this process; youth recalled feelings of frustration and isolation in their new school environment. This sense of isolation may have a profound effect on student engagement, raising the question, “How might middle school reading programs be structured differently, to better support and engage young adolescent readers?” In their recent study of middle grade students’ reading engagement, Ivey and Johnston  note that engagement for young adolescents involves not just individual comprehension but also social interaction. Engaged reading in middle school may be enhanced by incorporating features that promote social interaction and motivation, such as:
· Interesting texts
· Real world interactions
· Autonomy support (choice of texts)
· Strategy instruction
· Opportunities for collaboration
· Teacher involvement
Engaged reading, framed in terms of features like these, has the potential to connect students’ lives with texts in a relational and deeply personal way. It is, Ivey and Johnson observe, “Fundamentally about highly consequential dimensions of readers’ socioemotional lives” .
Stories of middle school reading shared by youth we interviewed bore little resemblance to the list of engaged-reading classroom features listed above. Instead, youth recalled reading ‘boring’ books, struggling alone to complete reading assignments, feeling isolated in classes, and avoiding reading, in general. In class, students were asked to read out loud, something many absolutely dreaded. As one youth recalled,
“I hate reading out loud ‘cause I’m not a good reader. That really got me, too. So I would like – for me, it would be like I make jokes so I wouldn’t have to read out loud. I would get myself in trouble so I wouldn’t have to do it and they would kick me out of my class, and I would be in the office”
Reading, no longer a fun activity, seemed to have become both a chore and potential source of shame and humiliation. Suddenly youth did not want to read, did not like to read, and ultimately did not read, even outside of school. This growing disengagement from reading was also most apparent in what youth couldn’t recall about reading in their early and later adolescent years. Even among those who professed to be competent readers, many could not name a single book they had read in middle or high school—whether assigned or chosen. Further, few could recall the kinds of books or materials they had read in other subjects beyond language arts, such as mathematics, science, or social studies. Sitting in classes alone, often struggling to make friends and connect with teachers, youth appeared to become increasingly disengaged with reading and at the same time disconnected from school in general.
Could an Engaging Reading Program Help Steer Students Away From Dropping Out?
The bleak perceptions of reading held by youth we interviewed contrast sharply with the way middle school students in Ivey and Johnston’s research study perceived reading and how they saw themselves as readers. After a year of reading and discussing self-selected, high interest young adult fiction (as part of the study’s intervention), a large majority of participating 8th graders reported reading for extended periods, discussing books with peers and family members, and making connections between book characters and their own lives. Additionally, the study documented positive shifts in the students' self-perceptions and confidence as readers. Discussing these findings, Ivey and Johnston assert, “Engagement clearly cannot be reduced to a solitary cognitive relationship of focused attention. Engaged reading must be fully personal and fully and inseparably relational” .
From the stories youth told us, their reading experiences in middle grades (and beyond) were neither personal nor relational. Instead, disengaged reading folded into the larger process of disconnecting from school, leading youth down the pathway to dropping out of school. These experiences lead to the question: Could engaged reading in middle and high school have helped divert youth from the pathway to dropping out? Perhaps not, as multiple factors beyond school contributed to the process of dropping out. Nevertheless, the kinds of powerful personal connections to reading and the increased sense of collaboration and community experienced by students in Ivey and Johnston’s study might give disconnected youth a tangible reason to stay in school. We found that academic mindset, the belief that one is able to do work and has the intelligence necessary to succeed, was a powerful factor influencing youths’ school failure. It is reasonable to think that academic mindset could be boosted by fostering engaged reading through shifts in middle school curriculum and instruction. Shifts like these may help at-risk students improve skills and see themselves as successful readers who are part of a larger reading community. Engaged reading may make it possible for disconnected youth to build confidence, persevere in completing reading and academic tasks, graduate on time, and ultimately become lifelong readers who are motivated to learn. firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Ivey, G., & Johnston, P. H. (2013). Engagement With Young Adult Literature: Outcomes and Processes. Reading Research Quarterly, vol. 48, no. 3, pp.255–275. doi:10.1002/rrq.46
2. Ibid, p. 257.
3. Ibid, p. 271.