My students ignored the reading homework. What should I do?

A reflection and how-to on asking students to read at home.

Just to clarify: this is not a hypothetical post. Not a thought experiment. This is about the other day in room 141, and yours truly walking around the room, slowly realizing that the lesson planned was nearly impossible because the students had not done the reading.

In that moment, what is there to do? Or more importantly, why did it happen in the first place?

I question whether assigning curricular texts for homework is valuable in the first place. Without a doubt, students need to read home if they are going to improve enough to meet those goals of volume, range, and complexity. But on the other hand, telling students to read a specific novel or story is a more delicate process. Students might fake read.  Students might cheat. Or students might not do it. This third option was most popular on this particular day.

What are the details? Let’s dive in…

The Assignment

I assigned students “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. As a first-draft reading task, I asked them to imagine that each page of the story was a chapter that they had to create a title for in a few words. The task was simple so that it didn’t bog students down from the main focus: the reading.  But when I circled around the room, fewer than half of the students had titles on the top of their pages. Some of those students appeared to have hastily scribbled words at the beginning of class.

The follow-up task planned for the day, intended as a short warm-up, asked students to compare the titles of their pages, select the most accurate titles for each page, and use the words/phrases of their titles to write a short retelling of the story. Then, the plan was, we would share these retellings, come to a consensus on the main ideas of the story, and move on to a guided reading of a few key scenes.  

Because of the low number of students who completed the reading, we never got past this retelling.

I assigned a focused tasks, and the students had three days to complete it (I’ll get back to that).  

So where did I go wrong?

Looking back, there were a few problems with my reading assignment…

The Roadblocks

Of course, the errors in our decision making are easier to spot in hindsight, but they are still a valuable discussion point. Teacher reflection is valuable. This is what I now realize may have contributed to my students lack of reading at home:

  1. The previous class period was a Friday and the the last period of the day. Teacher-student communication is strained during this time.
  2. The class traveled to the library for this period, in order to browse independent reading books and select one for later reading.
  3. I did very little framing or introduction of the story, aside from distributing the copies and explaining the assignment to students before we went to the library.
  4. I gave it to students to read over a three day weekend. Reading assignments, especially, are less likely to be completed over an extended break or weekend, my bias personal experience tells me.

There wee a few options for how to respond once I realized that very few students read. I believe I could either (A) press on with my lesson as planned, (B) read the story aloud or (C) both A and B. Yes, I opted for C. So, the students who did read moved on to creating their retellings of the story, while those who did not read spent the remaining time reading the story.  This was not the best case scenario, but I think it was a reasonable response to the situation.

How you can learn from my mistake

Here are a few questions to ask for when students didn’t read…or better yet…a few questions to ask before assigning reading:

  • Has this text been properly framed and introduced to the students? Does it feel “random”?
  • Do students have the knowledge and skills to read this text independently?
  • Do students have the stamina to read this text independently?
  • Have I created a reasonable, meaningful task for students to do with this reading?
  • Do students know how this text fits into our lesson, unit of study, and general year-long focus?
  • Is there any other logistical thing (tech access, a big school event, a long weekend) that might make it more or less likely that students will do the reading?

Now, it’s unreasonable for most teachers to stop and reflect on these questions in some kind of formal way.  But this list deserves some merit, even just to skim this once, and internalize some of these for the next time a situation like mine comes up.

It may be that you have a more hardline stance on required reading, and you would have pressed on with your lesson as planned. On the contrary, you may be against all required reading, and therefore much of this post is meaningless to you. Either way, I’d love to know: what do you think I should have done differently?

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4 thoughts on “My students ignored the reading homework. What should I do?

  1. Love the conclusions you draw, especially about meaningful reading and student stamina. I’m sure that sometimes you frame a text by means of a current-day connection. “This story is like a reality show gone horribly wrong” or “If you like Black Mirror, I’d love your opinion on this story.” Would it have ruined the lesson to let them know the chapter-title-per-page thing in advance? (An idea I really like)

    • Thanks, Joe. The modern relevance connection is always there in the back pocket of ELA educators. I think some teachers forget just how ubiquitous are the pop culture connections to literature.

      I think I was unclear with the title activity: I did assign it to them in advance, but I might have benefitted from modeling it a bit more or giving them a few minutes to begin in class.

      Thanks again for your feedback. It’s much appreciated.

  2. Hey Gerard! I appreciate that you shared this situation and your reflection. Something I would add– I have developed a rule for myself to generally avoid assigning students to read something at home if we aren’t also reading it in class. Somehow, I’ve found this makes a big difference. In this case, maybe framing (as you already mentioned) and beginning reading and titling together in class, then sending them home to continue the process with the rest of the story might be stickier for students, or less random, as you said.

    • Hey Ariel! Thanks for taking the time to read and respond. You make a great point. Once I wrote this post, the errors of my ways were illuminated. That’s one of the best parts of writing about the profession, as I’m sure you notice too: it clarifies my thinking for the next time the situation occurs.

      Your general rule is a useful one and one that I’ll adopt in the future. As you know, your book is a huge influence on me. Thank you!

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