How does a young person approach a text differently than an English tutor? Why?

Blair Bertrand asked this question in a comment on one of my other posts, and I’ve been thinking about it for some time.  This question doesn’t really apply to my E.S.L. students; I’ll deal with them in another post, another day.  This question is for my North American students, all of whom have been in Canada for most of their lives, and are considered to be fluent in English.

My students, who, logically, are coming to me only because they are having problems in English class, hate reading.  I have a couple who will voluntarily read graphic novels, but about 99% don’t even read the back of the cereal box.  It’s not that they’re stupid, or have any learning disabilities which prevent them from reading: they just don’t like doing it.  They can’t do it.  When they need information, they ask a human being, or watch a television programme.  Some of them are very visual, even to the point of depending on diagrams and pictures for guidance,  but the written word is not a language they use to communicate.

I watch these students, and ask them what they think of the book they’ve just read, or the book they’re allowed to read.  If I ask if they liked the book, they say, “yeah”, but if I ask what they liked about it, they just shrug.  Books are taken in hand with a deep breath, as if they are undertaking the Herculean tasks.

A good number of them are afraid of reading.  It makes sense that, if you don’t like reading, you’re not likely to be very good at it.  All but one of my students are in either the public or the Catholic school system, so their lack of reading has probably resulted in just one-or-a-thousand parent/teacher interviews, and considerable humiliation in the classroom.   If the task can be avoided, it is something to be done with the determination of one avoiding torture.

When I give them a selection of books, and ask them to choose something they might like to read, they invariably choose the shortest text available which is not a poem.  Poetry, they think, has some hidden meaning which they are never able to decipher.  Novels are just hard.  Short stories don’t take too long to read, and are not likely to have too many ethereal meanings or elusive literary devices.

Reading provides no pleasure for my students.  There is no thrill in hearing a particular word; there are no “funny” words or onomatopoeia which make them giggle; there is no chance of getting so lost in a text that you are shaken to find yourself still on earth.

How do my students “approach a text”?  As a chore; as a threat to their general sense of ease and contentment; as something which, like a strange religion, they can never understand.

Why?  Because not everyone can speak the same language.  Just because we call it all “English”, doesn’t mean it bears any resemblance to the spoken language.

I do understand my students: I feel the same way about numbers.


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