The Power of Boredom in Learning to Read

This is a theory about learning to read I’ve held for a long time, but Salon’s article “Why Kids Need Solitude” by Alice Karekezi prompted me to put it out in the blogosphere.

Theory: People only learn to read when they are really, really bored and have nothing–NOTHING–else to do but read a book.

I’ve spoken to a lot of peers, adults and parents about the moment they became readers; not when they learned to read, but moved from passive reader to hungry and passionate reader. Without exception, each described a day in which they had nothing to do, so they picked up a book and read until it caught fire.

My own case was a rainy day in fourth grade.  I remember reading a Scholastic biography on Sam Houston (I have no idea how it wound up in our house; Sam Houston is not mentioned as a historical figure in New England schools). Picture a dull blue Scholastic title from the early 1970s, a blonde haired kid laying in the living room in front of a fire. Then, after Houston, I read some horse book my older sister Nancy used to read. Then… I don’t remember, but there was more as the day turned to a greying evening.  After that day, I read a lot. The public library became a regular stop, and it lasted for years. Never one to hole up in corner, I still looked to books for the answer to whatever popped into my head.

My sister mentions a long car ride and her second grade son moving from decoder to fluent reader thanks to a “Calvin and Hobbes” treasury. Long, dull weekends in ski lodges with boring companions pushed some. A number of adults and some students mention unsafe households, where bedrooms and books afforded a modicum of safety.

As a teacher, I’ve begged kids to read. We have played the “find the right book” game, and scheduled plenty of sustained silent reading (SSR). They are expert avoiders. The report “Evaluating Sustained Silent Reading in Reading Classes” by Chow & Chou indicates that six months of SSR is necessary to break through that wall. Why? My theory is that non-readers can stare at an upside down book, miss class, beg off to the library and pass notes for only so long before confronted with the boredom that is SSR without the reading component of the acronym. Interestingly, five months, Chow & Chou find, has no effect. Six.

My theory is that we need to play the game with finding “just right books” (admission: I want to retch when I’m stuck in an inservice and they trot out the Goldilocks method; it’s a good reminder and cute metaphor, but the presentation is too much for my cynical heart) and work the other angles, but at the end of the day the kid needs to just “Sit down, Shut-up and Read” (SSR). As teachers, we need to inflict a long amount of boredom with a book that begs to be opened.

As I said, this is a theory. In one of Nancie Atwell’s book she speaks about classroom teachers becoming researchers (and how their findings are often not accepted by mainstream researchers, although that may have changed, in no small part of Atwell and her ilk). I would be interested in any teachers can support or disprove my theory.  I’m close to creating an experiment myself, but science is about redundancy.

Finally, before he was the host of “This American Life” Ira Glass did reports on Chicago’s public schools. He mentions it at times, and uses some of the old material in a few pieces, but in this episode he revisists a school, Washington Irving Elementary School, that was a model of reform.  You can hear how it plays out here:  Two Steps Back.  It was reform with little cost, with SSR as one of the centerpieces. The first part of this story is worth a listen, if only to be inspired to “waste” class time with SSR. I’ve been battling with our schedulers for years over this issue.  (The second half, about the dismantling, is less inspiring).

As break turns into boredom, think about what your own students are doing.  Is “Call of Duty” keeping them from picking up “Ender’s Game”?  If so, mention that, and this theory, at your next IEP meeting or parent conference.

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