Why Teens Don’t Read and What Teachers Can Do About It

By Katie McKnight, Ph.D.

More than 60% of teen students are reading below proficiency level. Teachers in middle and high schools shouldn’t be surprised by this fact. Undoubtedly, they have students who don’t read what’s assigned and, as a result, come to class unprepared.

You gave us too much! I looked it over. Won’t you review the important parts during class anyway? It’s so long and boring!

This is not a new problem. And it is becoming increasingly more serious. Despite the link between reading and academic success, too many teen students don’t like to read, get by reading as little as possible, or struggle to understand what they read. In turn, too many teachers try to solve the problem by assigning blame, threatening to give bad grades, or springing pop quizzes on their students.

Teachers are in a unique position to reverse this trend and motivate students in their middle and high schools to do the reading—and enjoy it. In this article, we’ll look at how.

Meet Core requirements for text complexity

The Common Core State Standards take a clear stance when it comes to reading. Starting in kindergarten, students need to read more to be college- and career-ready. They need to read different kinds of texts—literature, informational, and literary nonfiction. And, they need to read increasingly complex texts with greater independence.

Let’s look more closely at the textual complexity expectations. Even using existing texts, teachers can take steps to actively support their students in this important area. They can use quantitative measures to assign reading—such as word length and difficulty, sentence length, and text length and cohesion. They can use qualitative measures to choose a text—including level of meaning, structure, organization, and prior knowledge demands. In addition, they can use their professional judgment to determine how suited a text is to a reader or group of readers—considering such factors as purpose for reading, complexity of task assigned regarding the text, and the reader’s knowledge and experience.

Build vocabulary and comprehension

Where teachers in the upper grades can really make a difference is with vocabulary and comprehension. Do students know and understand the meaning of words? Do they have a rich vocabulary? Are they actually understanding the richer meaning of the text they read?

The bottom line is that reading is the best way to build both of these skills. In today’s information-heavy world, an endless number and variety of reading resources for building vocabulary and comprehension skills are at a teacher’s fingertips. Content is stored everywhere—not only in textbooks, but in Web pages, YouTube, blogs, magazines, and newspapers as well. Using engaging resources, teachers can challenge their students’ understanding of the meaning of words, guide them in using words with flexibility and precision, and facilitate the process of constructing meaning from what is read.

Differentiated instruction

In a classroom full of teenagers with diverse interests and at different reading levels, teachers can select and adapt texts to differentiate their instruction and meet the needs of all. Add pictures, change the length of sentences, pull information from Wiki Answers, include headings, build in video—there are multiple avenues for supplementing existing text with teen-friendly and engaging content. By collaborating and sharing with other teachers, the amount of additional prep time can be minimized.

At the end of the day, the more teens read, the better they will get. Teachers who keep the big picture clearly in mind will be most successful at placing their students on the path to literacy success.

For a deeper look into how to motivate teen students to read, check out SDE’s webinar Five Steps to Support Active and Struggling Teen Readers in the Common Core Era by literacy and CCSS expert and author Katie McKnight, Ph.D.

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