These Are the Causes and Symptoms of Our Fake Reading Problem

You’ve searched up your recent headache on WebMD with a terrifying diagnosis. Your latest freckle turns up grim results. Your new hangnail? A death sentence.  Sometimes, in our age of excessive information, playing doctor to ourselves can be a scary, if not, silly endeavor.

But what if we look at our reading classroom as a medical patient with its own set of symptoms, causes, and treatments?

In some cases, the diagnosis will be clear: we’ve got a fake reading problem on our hands.

A definition we can work from:

Fake reading

(/fāk ˈrēdiNG/)


  1. A student’s process of completing required assignments, including quizzes, essays, discussions, and other activities, in order to achieve a passing grade but without reading a required text
  2. The action of presenting one’s self as reading, when in reality, one is daydreaming, texting, or otherwise intellectually engaged
  3. A situation that teachers often ignore or deny that can be addressed and treated through the cultivation of an authentic culture of readers in the classroom

Some symptoms of fake reading:

Students write answers that may be factually correct but lack key details, page numbers, or quotations from the text.

Students who normally are successful at holding discussions or debates fail to maintain a conversation about the book beyond a rehashing of events.

Students scramble before class to complete an assignment, such as creating questions about a text, or answering a key question.

In conversation, a student moves to the big ideas, discussing them before they’ve really developed.  They’ve read an online analysis of the early chapters.

Students hold the book upside down in class, or they seem to aggressively swipe at the pages (clandestine iPhone use).

Students struggle to speak or write about the author’s craft .

Students’ writing about the text contains plagiarized excerpts from a site like Sparknotes.

Students choose a new independent reading book, sit down, turn to page 100 and begin reading.

Or, students tell you that they are not reading. They told Penny Kittle in this video.

While some of these are a bit facetious, hopefully, the point is clear: certain situations promote superficial thinking, rushed work, or even straight up pretending from our students. This means they are not developing the skills and content knowledge that are essential for our course.  The logical next step is to examine the factors in our control as teachers that may contribute to the symptoms above.

Some causes of fake reading:

These may exist in isolation or may co-occur:

Students fail to see relevance to their assigned reading outside of the pursuit of a good grade, if they are in that pursuit.

Students have no choice in their reading. Required reading can be a positive experience. I recommend Ariel Sacks’s book Whole Novels.

Students lack the adequate skills or background knowledge to make meaning of a text independently. They can’t read this book on their own.

Students lose interest because the pace is too slow.  Successful readers get into a “flow state.” If there are too many interruptions for quizzes or other activities, students lose interest. For the extended argument on this, read Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide.

Students feel that they have no time for reading. It’s our job to show them how successful adults with a busy schedule make time for reading.

Depending on the texts that students are required to read in your district or the texts that you have available for choice reading, some of these may feel more insurmountable than others. Notice that in many classrooms, especially high school English ones, the traditional process of developing curriculum around a handful of old classics, read in their entirety, by all students, mostly outside of class basically hits on every one of these causes. Here, some might argue that honors or AP level students have the adequate skills and background knowledge to read some classics, but that does not make them immune to fake reading. (see #2 below)

Two other observations

  1. It seems that, as a whole, fake readers are not a specific type of student, but instead can be any student when the conditions are present. A student who is actually reading this book at this time of the year because of this way we’re teaching may be the same student who is hearing his classmate offer him a 10,000-foot view summary of that other book during the morning of a class discussion during that other time of year.
  2. It seems that fake reading is not necessarily correlated with students’ reading level or overall academic capabilities. In fact, students who are more driven by grades may be more likely to take shortcuts when they see shortcuts available to them. This might lead higher achieving students to avoid reading when intrinsic factors do not compel them to do so.

Turn the obstacle into an opportunity

Framing this discussion in medical terms makes sense to me, if we think of our teaching in terms of the factors that we can and cannot control.

Instead of symptoms of fake reading leading us to get angry at a student, chastise her for not completing a reading, or implement some punitive grading, maybe we notice that there are multiple students exhibiting the same behavior. That’s quality feedback to use as a means of guiding instruction. Then, we can take a step back and look at where any of those potential causes of fake reading might be present in instruction. We can determine a treatment.

Here, teachers may make an argument: my curriculum outlines a series of texts that students must read throughout the year. This has been my thought throughout this school year, as my department’s 9-12 curriculum for college prep level students was re-written to include many more shared reading experiences.

But notice that, at least in this article, there is no cause of fake reading that says “students are required to read certain texts.” This can’t be where we turn up our palms, saying, we’ve got to get through these books.

Ultimately, we don’t teach texts. We teach students.

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4 thoughts on “These Are the Causes and Symptoms of Our Fake Reading Problem

  1. Yes! What an excellent read that is relevant to what I see happening. There is so much I want to improve as a teacher. This helps me to focus. Thank you!

  2. Great points here, Jerry. I think it’s important to note that not only are “high-performing” students not immune to this, but they may be most likely to engage and least likely to be detected in doing so. One of those students, for example, would be more proficient at being able to “talk around” a book, having developed the needed school-survival techniques to do so; a lower-performing student would have never gotten a chance to develop that skill. As a result, many of our “best” students are in fact depriving themselves of genuine reading growth. I have no doubt that some of my Honors students have never read a book; not “a book for my class” or “a book in high school” but a book. Period.

    Ultimately, I think a root cause of this is asking the wrong questions as teachers regarding reading. If we’re only assessing plot-based elements, it’s an easy workaround. Even our thematic and character analysis questions can be circumvented through online resources like SparkNotes and Shmoop. We need to rethink our approaches; if you cheat your reps in a workout, you don’t build the muscle! Reinforcing perseverance, destigmatizing failure, encouraging more questions rather than answers, etc, will, I believe, be our best approach.

    • Thanks for weighing in here, Matt!

      Yes, I think you’ve described the situation perfectly when it comes to fake reading of higher performing students. They are skilled at the game of school, despite their lack of authentic reading experiences. It speaks volumes to our current system, which I know you are working to address in your classroom.

      Your ideas about our angle of inquiry are essential, too. If information is now condensed, curated, and interpreted on-demand for students, where is the value in the novel, which hides its value until we put in all the work? We’ve got to somehow sell the experience of consuming the full text and engaging with it authentically.

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