As long-time teachers, we recognize the power of reading. We know that reading is absolutely essential to people’s success both in and out of school. But sometimes we worry that the power of reading obscures its pleasure, at least in public policy discussions. That’s why we undertook a study of the nature and variety of the pleasure young people take in their out-of school reading, especially their reading of texts that are often marginalized by schools: romances, vampire stories, horror, dystopias, and fantasy.
What we found was that young people were amazingly articulate about the playful pleasure they derived from entering a story world; the pleasure that stemmed from using their reading to do inner work, that is, to think about the kind of person they wanted to become; the intellectual pleasure of figuring out the puzzles texts provided; and the social pleasure they derived from using their reading to connect with others.
And they were equally articulate about why pleasure should be central to teachers’ practice. Here’s Bennie talking about her beloved Harry Potter books:
Teachers should read these books. If you can grab kids with what already excites them, then you are on the way. I never understood why school picks the books that they do except that they are important—but they are not as relatable to us. And as a direct result kids weren’t into it and it was all like pulling teeth. Start with what kids are already excited about. You can teach the same lessons and build the same skills and have more willing participants.
Think of the implications: What would happen if we resolved to follow Bennie’s suggestion and to make pleasure a primary concern in our instructional planning? We think that the implications of this resolution are enormous. One implication is that we would have to be mindful of the variety of pleasures that readers can take from their reading and not privilege intellectual pleasures—the enjoyment taken from figuring out how things work, the characteristic province of school.
To be sure, the participants in our study took pleasure in making thematic generalizations, in figuring out metaphors, in carefully analyzing the aesthetic choices an author makes, in making subtle distinctions among related genres, intellectual pleasures all. But we also saw the pleasures of entering a story world and living through a character’s actions, of trying on a character’s perspectives and thinking about what it might mean for how one wants to live, of sharing one’s reading with friends. We should choose texts and provide instructional environments and supports that promote this variety of pleasure (or let our students choose those books and provide ways for them to share these pleasures with each other).
Another implication would be to work to expand the range of texts in which students can take pleasure, taking care as we do so to teach in a way to engage students in experiencing the pleasure of texts that they might not select on their own while recognizing that it might not be easily forthcoming. Let’s think about what our resolution might say about selecting texts. Student choice is safer than teacher choice. Variety is safer than similarity.
We are not calling for eliminating the study of classic or challenging contemporary literature. Our respondents talked on occasion about how they took pleasure from such texts. What we are calling for is embedding the teaching of those texts in contexts that foster the pleasure students can take from them. Such contexts would involve inquiry models of teaching, in which groups could read different books addressing an essential question in small groups such as literature circles, and then share what they had learned and experienced with other groups.
Another implication is making interpretive complexity equal to text complexity in planning. Vampire novels might not appear in many curricula, but look at the kind of thinking they fostered in Jaycee:
Being a teenager is partly about struggling to be more adult and have more adult relationships…I think a real struggle of more adult relationships is making sure they are life-giving in both directions. I mean, we all have these needs so you have to be careful about not being a vampire and sucking someone else dry, or hurting and discarding them. But you have to be really careful not to let someone do it to you too, like dominate you, just because you like being liked or feeling attractive or whatever. I think it’s a real danger.
She’s clearly engaged in making complex inferences about the texts she’s reading, just the kind of inference-making the Common Core State Standards call for. And she does so in service of becoming the kind of person who she wants to become, a deep form of inner work.
Finally, making pleasure more central to our practice would mean providing plenty of opportunities for choice. Although the readers in our study experienced similar kinds of pleasure, the texts that fostered those pleasure very different.
Here’s Callie talking about what she called dark fiction:
So if I were responding to a situation in a fiction state of mind, I would probably be like the teen heroine in this fiction state of mind where something horrible happens to them, but then they emotionally grow and strive above it. That’s my fiction voice. But a more realistic dark character, something really horrible happens and I have no idea what to do and I think and I ponder about what the possibilities are as I try and try desperately to overcome this situation but never really do and end up moving on with this situation that still is left hanging. Like, because that’s a way more realistic way of life.
And here’s Kylie’s comment about the romances she loved to read:
The [heroine] has to make things clear to her love, and usually has to organize things…for them to be together which she has to do one step at a time because usually things are pretty complicated! And then they have to really see and really care about each other—hopefully forever. HEA [Happily Ever After], baby!
What book is going to appeal to both young women? Hmm. If we’re committed to maximizing our students’ textual pleasure and if we can’t know what books our students are going to take pleasure in, we have to let them choose, at least on occasion.
We want to be the kind of teachers who help our students fall in love with books in ways that foster a life-long devotion to reading. If we are to succeed, then we need to keep—at the forefront of our attention and in all of its various forms—the rich, complex, and profound pleasures of reading.
Jeffrey D. Wilhelm, is a professor of English education at Boise State University and was a middle and high school teacher for 15 years. Jeffery has written more than thirty books, among them are: “You Gotta BE the Book; Engaging Readers and Writers With Inquiry;” and “Improving Comprehension With Think-Aloud Strategies.”
Michael W. Smith is currently a professor in the College of Education at Temple University and has 11 years’ experience teaching high school. Michael has written a wide variety of articles and contributing chapters, as well as more than a dozen books, including “Authorizing Readers: Resistance and Respect in the Teaching of Literature;” “The Language of Interpretation: Patterns of Discourse in Discussions of Literature;” and “Understanding Unreliable Narrators.”
Jeff and Michael’s previous collaborations include: “Reading Unbound: Why Kids Need to Read What They Want – and Why We Should Let Them, published by Scholastic [NASDAQ: SCHL];“Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys: Literacy in the Lives of Young Men” (winner of NCTE’s 2003 David H. Russell Award for Distinguished Research in the Teaching of English); “Going With the Flow: How to Engage Boys (and Girls) in Their Literacy;” “Getting It Right: Fresh Approaches to Teaching Grammar, Usage, and Correctness;” and “Fresh Takes on Teaching Literary Elements: How to Teach What Really Matters About Character, Setting, Point of View, and Theme.”