The TEAA Recreational Reading Project

Bill Jones, TEAA, June 24, 2010
"I think about this business of recreational reading all the time," I wrote in 2008 to a Tanzanian principal I'd met in April of that year. "There is no exaggeration in the statement. As I'm sure I indicated in our conversation ... in my thirty years at Rutgers University, teaching writing, not one course was without daily recreational reading as a prominent element. It was simply clear that the work that students and I did was more efficiently executed if students read. Readers, I came to see, actually make themselves writers. The idea is just to get students to turn pages and to enjoy doing so, just the way readers everywhere do." I stressed that students should read widely and not be confined to so-called great books and classics, but "should read for pleasure, and they certainly shouldn't have to read thinking about being tested."

Now, two years later, nine schools are participating in the Teachers for East Africa Alumni recreational reading project. Of the earliest participants, certainly New Kabaale Busega High School, Kampala and Mackay Memorial College, Nateete in Uganda needed no convincing of its value. And much to my pleasure, the project reports from St. Bernard's College Kiswera, Uganda and St. Joseph Ngarenaro Girls' School in Arusha came with the news that the entire school, administrators and teachers, in addition to the students, were all taking part in the project.

The path has not always been smooth. Discussing the benefits of recreational reading had been my main focus as part of a two-person TEAA school-visiting team and the principal I was writing to had been open and enthusiastic in our conversation and yet here she was (in the email to which I was responding) proposing to get several copies of a drastically reduced number of different titles than what I had proposed. I asked her to consider 70 unique titles, as opposed to say 7 copies of 10 titles - to allow a far wider choice and so that a diligent student would not run out of possibilities and might even read them all. This point has recurred often, and appears to be driven by a model in which there are set books each year, picked by governments, that every student is to read.

[Expressing interest and providing a long enough list of books are part of the entry requirements to the program. Book lists have also been provided by TEAA-ers. You can get to them from the menu in the upper left of the TEAA home page, by rolling your cursor over "Reading Lists" and clicking one of the choices. -hh]

Another school waited two years to show interest, preferring in the meantime for us to help with what they considered more pressing needs, even though we had offered to do both. When they finally came up with a list, though, it had nearly one hundred different titles, and, following their own lead, included many titles that appeared on no other schools list. They also worked out their own system for logging what students read: Students check out and return books daily, and in doing so, generate an accurate record of the reading they have done by the end of each term. I count such adaptations positive markers if, in the execution of the project, the adaptations accommodate the particular needs of a school and do not complicate the project for students or teachers.

Teachers, I realize, at work in difficult circumstances are reluctant to take on responsibilities in addition to those they already have. What counts for them in the reality of day-to-day teaching is how students perform on material that is examinable. From that not-unreasonable stance, recreational reading, for them and, too often, for their upper-form charges, is "a waste of time." Those four words were what a board member of a school in Uganda used in his reporting on the attitude of teachers whom he described as not having developed the habit of reading themselves. Since I anticipated the need to convince some teachers of the practical value of recreational reading - the reading of un-examinable material - the guide I wrote for initiating the project includes, as an essential step, a recommendation for a conversation among English teachers and administrators to consider their own experience as readers and as language professionals to remind themselves how reading functions to deepen linguistic competence.

[Click to see Bill's note to teachers, titled "How to Start a Project to Encourage Recreational Reading." -hh]

What schools require students to do often reinforces my conclusion that it is difficult indeed for some teachers to think of reading apart from test taking: One school required that students give "a performed reading [of each book they have read, each reading] guided by a teacher." Another asked that students write summaries of everything they read. Over time, such requirements are likely to become burdensome for everyone concerned. Instead of developing an elaborate monitoring scheme, teachers should simply allow students to read the way ordinary readers do: They read what they want to read. Like their teachers who concern themselves about learning, students themselves will, in time, see that reading increases their vocabulary and sharpens their sense of how English works.

For a principal at one school who had developed a monitoring scheme that teachers found taxing, I offered the following: "The project is [finally] based on trust, students wanting to engage in something that is deeply pleasurable and beneficial but which is in no way burdensome to them or their teachers. Teachers and administrators, perhaps, have to be direct in calling on students to be honest in carrying out the requirements of the project, asking them not to betray the trust that the school community requires. Certainly, responsible students can find a mere twenty minutes each day to read, undertaking an activity that is central to their functioning as serious-minded students."

For another administrator, in lieu of his complicated monitoring scheme, I suggested that the project be monitored by students themselves: "[T]eachers could help students form small groups of readers, perhaps four students to a group with one of them designated the leader. Together they could sign a contract that commits them to five days of twenty minutes of reading. The groups could be called 'reading buddies,' students who support each other, making sure that none of them breaks the contract all of them have signed. Undertaken in this way, the project could essentially be a student-drive, self-sustaining activity."

What I know, finally, is that schools that participate in the recreational reading project recognize its benefits. They all can testify, as one principal did, to its effects on students' use and response to English - "It has enhanced... the reading skills in... students which is advantageous to them" - underscoring the observation that students who read function academically better than those who don't.