During my three years teaching at the International College in Beirut, Lebanon, the Upper School required teachers to have a weekly “parent hour,” a recurring time where, as the title implies, parents could meet with teachers to discuss their children.

Far and away, parents’ most common question was how they could improve their child’s SAT scores.

SAT scores were students’ primary currency for entry into prestigious schools throughout the world. Because they often took chemistry, math, biology, and physics concurrently, students routinely aced the math component. The English section? They suffered, to put it lightly.

Before placing blame on those of us in the English Department, humble readers should understand the Lebanese culture. The problem wasn’t that the majority of students spoke English as either a second or third language, but that the Lebanese are not known for reading. My students and their parents told me they rarely read for pleasure.

It would be great if we could pat ourselves on the back, chuckle at their expense, and applaud ourselves for our voracious American appetite for reading.

Enter Mr. Gioia.

Dana Gioia served as chairman for the National Endowment for the Arts for seven years. When the NEA released a seminal work regarding American readers, he told NPR in 2007:

The good news is that we seem to be doing a better job than ever before of teaching elementary school kids to read. That’s terrific. You see the scores — in elementary school, they’re excellent.

The scores, however, begin to flatten out at the age of 13. And once we get into the teenage and young adult years, there is a calamitous universal falling off of reading. And as Americans read less, they read less well. As they read less well, they do less well in school, in the job market and in civic life.

That phrase — “a calamitous universal falling off of reading” — has stuck with me since I heard it years ago.

Kudos to those who instill an excitement about reading among our youth. For everyone who has engaged and interacted with teenagers, however, the NEA’s conclusions about reading likely sound familiar.

So yes, I am an English teacher encouraging you to read more. But I don’t want to lambast non-readers or try to convince students why reading is beneficial. They already know the obvious.

I do have two suggestions for overcoming the problem of finding reading material you will love.

One was a discovery I found while abroad, since acquired by Amazon: Goodreads.com.

Rate a handful of books on a five-point scale, and an algorithm generates suggestions catered to your liking. Thought that Jane Austen novel disappointed? Rate it a one star and rest assured no more from her canon will appear on your screen. Agree with TIME magazine that the graphic novel The Watchmen is a pinnacle of psychology realism? Rate it a five and find hidden gems in the genre.

Another great source for good reads is Longform.org.

This curated site collects freely distributed pieces of 2,000 or more words on every imaginable topic. Search by topic, by writer, or by publication. You can even see an estimate of how long each read will take you.

Are tools like these a panacea for reluctant readers? Hardly. But they made me think of the students I see endlessly scrolling through feeds and scanning headlines on their phones, rarely pausing on any screen for very long. Also, with free phone and tablet apps available for both Goodreads and Longform, they are easy to bring with you anywhere.

Happy reading!


By Derek Smith

Mr. Smith teaches Upper School English at Morgan Park Academy and is our Curriculum Leader for the English department.