15 People Debate Why We Should (Or Shouldn’t) Make Kids Read “Boring” Books In School

I was an avid reader for my entire life. From the moment my mother bought me my first chapter book (The Babysitter’s Club) in the 3rd grade, I was hooked.

That said, even I hated the majority of the books that were assigned in high school English.

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It didn’t turn me off reading, but as this OP pointed out when he asked people to weigh in, those “boring” and “hard” books can and do put some students off books for a very long time.

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And why should we focus on WHO wrote it instead of WHAT has been written?

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Here’s what 15 people had to say about why they think those hard books are worth it… OR what they would change to keep students engaged.

15. Your teachers are trying to challenge you.

Harry Potter is great. I love Harry Potter. But it just doesn’t hold a candle to the profundity and universality of Shakespeare.

Harry Potter is a great coming of age story, but it stops there.

Every one of Shakespeare’s plays is a microcosm of the human condition.

I urge you to give it another try.

14. Not everyone has the same taste.

To be fair, many kids would still find the Lord of The Rings or the Hobbit very boring as well. Many kids just hate reading in general, whether that’s because it isn’t cool, or they feel they read enough in school as it is, or they just prefer doing something else. Those kids you’ll never get through to. So, for many kids, no matter how “exciting” a book is, they simply will never enjoy reading.

Furthermore, as evidenced by LotR and the Hobbit examples: exciting/interesting is very subjective. You and I enjoy that series, but many people also find the books dry, drawn out, and boring. I personally adored the book Anthem, but many other people did not connect with it like I did, just as many people loved the Catcher in the Rye or the Great Gatsby but I loathed both books.

So, while I could drone on and on about how much I hated so many of the books we read (fuck me sideways I hated Great Expectations), there were several that really resonated with me (like Anthem and even the Sun Also Rises to a certain extent). Hell, even some of the literature that would have been dry and boring was made incredibly fun and engaging through activities. The Odyssey, Shakespeare’s Caesar, and English tales like King Arthur were all made to be a lot of fun for a lot of students (even those who didn’t like reading) through engaging activities that turned our class into a group on an adventure, or in a heated political debate, or even into warring kingdoms.

Many of those boring books are necessary to facilitate more complex thought processes, to help students grow in their vocabulary and critical thinking. Simply picking subjectively interesting or exciting books but teaching them in a boring manner will still yield the same results: some will love it, others will feel disengaged and hate it. My direct counter to your view is this: vary the types of books, the tones the settings, the lessons contained within, and try to build a curriculum around them that is engaging and sort of a meta-overworld game to the story you’re covering. This will be much more effective in drawing students in, getting them invested in the material, the themes, and the analysis, and will result in a much larger net positive in terms of amount of kids who enjoy literature.

13. Different high schools use different curriculums.

But “everyone” doesn’t hate Shakespeare. I’m sorry to hear that your class did, but I liked Shakespeare in high school. I read Romeo and Juliet and then in 9th grade and then tried out for our junior high production where I played the nurse. That year me and a few other students choose Midsummer night’s Dream for an English class project when we could have picked something more modern because we liked it.

I also didn’t enjoy the Lord of the Rings. I liked the Hobbit but I found the trilogy slow and full of long unnecessary description so it felt like work to get through it. (This was 6th grade.) And I was reading fantasy books for fun at that age.

You are assuming that your preferences and those of your classmates is the preference of all young people everywhere, and that isn’t true. Shakespeare is so well read in large part because to this day there are many people who appreciate his work. I also think that school is a great place to read challenging texts since it is a place you will have the support needed to understand them. Having read Hamlet in school was quite helpful say in understanding everything going on when I saw a wonderful production of it later. If his work was difficult for you even in school, what chance would you have had to appreciate it without any support? (That said, I have watched Shakespeare plays without studying them in class first and it was fine – though I usually did some preparation/reading of my own in advance, at least for the histories.)

Through school I did read a variety of books some of which I enjoyed and some of which I did not. But I didn’t always enjoy or hate the same ones as my peers. I hated A Catcher in the Rye with such a passion in 10th grade reading it would piss me off. Other kids enjoyed it.

You should also be careful about assuming all high schools read the same books. Our high school there was actually different options for 11th and 12th grade English even within our school. In 11th grade you could take American or British Lit and I knew kids who took British lit specifically for Shakespeare (I was in American). In 12th grade there was many options both half and full year (you had to take two halves if you didn’t take a full) that ranged from AP Literature to Science fiction, children’s fiction, Sports Writing, ect. I took a classic literature class and an intensive writing seminar.

12. Sometimes things that aren’t fun are still worth it.

The point of studying literature isn’t just to teach students to read for pleasure.

  • When I was high school, I was made to read books like “Romeo and Juliet”. These books were horribly boring and incredibly difficult to read. Every sentence took deciphering.

A few things here. First, Shakespeare is the most influential English writer of all time. He’s beloved by millions, if not billions of readers. Just because you didn’t enjoy it doesn’t mean no one does.

Second, there’s value in having to decipher meaning. That’s depth. That’s poetry. That’s asking the reader to use their brain to actively engage in the material. School isn’t supposed to be easy – it’s supposed to challenge you so that you’re forced to learn. Pretty much everything you’re complaining about is what makes it great for students.

Third, there’s value in having to work hard at something you don’t enjoy, to pour over boring material you don’t understand. That’s pretty much what work is. That’s going to be a huge part of your life. Learning how to analyze boring, complicated texts is an invaluable skill. That comprehension will stay with you throughout your education and beyond.

  • Being someone who loved reading books like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, this didn’t affect me too much. I struggled through the books, reports, etc. like everyone and got a grade. But I still loved reading.
  • Most of my classmates, however, did not fare so well. They hated the reading, hated the assignments, hated everything about it, simply because it was so old and hard to read.

Something tells me they weren’t going to be big readers anyways. By the time you start reading Shakespeare in high school, you’re already exposed to tons of other literature. The Bard alone ain’t enough to get someone to give up on all reading at that point.

  • I believe that most kids hate reading because their only experience reading are reading books from our antiquity.

Most kids hate reading because it’s hard and boring. But even lots of kids who think they like reading aren’t very good at it because they don’t push themselves with challenging texts. You think Shakespeare is too hard and want to read books like Harry Potter in class. What about the kid who thinks Harry Potter is too hard? Should he read See Spot Run?

It’s not about what you can already read – it’s about getting you to the next level.

  • “Those books are English literature, we only read American literature.”

Typically in a literature course taught around the texts of a specific region, a huge part of the purpose is to trace history through that literature. What does The Scarlet Letter say about Puritan America? What does The Great Gatsby say about the Jazz Age? Understanding the broader context around a piece of literature is a critical skill. Literature is part of culture, part of the zeitgeist for a time and place. Many classes are about seeing it that way.

  • Isn’t it far more important our kids learn to read? And more than that – learn to like to read? Why does it matter that Shakespeare revolutionized writing! more than giving people good books?

Yes – that’s why courses are designed to push your skills further. Sometimes that means boring and challenging work. Why do we have to learn physics equations? Isn’t it more important that kids love science? Why does it matter that Newton revolutionized physics? Let’s make volcanoes and play with magnets all day.

11. It’s not supposed to be easy.

Of course everyone prefers doing easy things. High school English classes are not meant to teach you to love reading, Although that can be a nice bonus. They are meant to teach you writing skills, grammar skills, and analyzation and organizational skills.

And in general, classes are supposed to prepare you for hard work. Most of the skills you learn in high school are not things you will be using in your day to day adult life; what you are really learning is how to use your brain in different ways and how to keep trying when something is difficult.

If kids not enjoying reading is that big of a concern, there should be separate book clubs for reading entertaining books. But again, that is not what your English class is for.

10. Reading comprehension is more important than loving to read.

Interesting. I definitely disagree with OP about reading, but I’d argue that the physics example is a case of something that perhaps should changed.

I majored in physics and taught HS physics, so I love it, but what about kids who will only take this one physics class? Are Newton’s laws really the most important things to know? Projectile motion?

I’m not suggested kids make volcanoes in HS, but I’d say it’s more important that kids get a solid understanding of energy and scientific models – this will give them the foundations needed to understand the debate about climate change, the single most important scientific issue that people will face in their non-school lives.

9. There’s value in the source material.

“Had a much more interesting storyline than a romance that has been copied in a million books and movies.”

You seem to view classics as less value if they’ve been copied since then. This is fairly common across media. Sitcom plots that were hysterical on I Love Lucy become predictable when they’re repeated by other shows over the next 50 years. If you read a Sherlock Holmes story, you’ll often be able to solve the case halfway through because you’ll have seen the same plot repeated in a half-dozen network detective shows. But that doesn’t mean there’s not still a value in reading the original. Because there’s a reason the original inspired a thousand imitators.

8. Some people just don’t like being told what to do.

I love reading and even enjoy “boring” books like Shakespeare.

What I don’t like is being forced to read books which also applied to the more modern books that I had to read in school.

So to some degree making people read books and then spend hours writing or other things based on the reading will turn them off of reading regardless of what they read.

As for your comments on who wrote the book. Literature and history are closely connected we divide literature classes that way so we can discuss the context of how those stories were written for example mark twain and Leo Tolstoy were writing books around the same time but Tom sawyer and Anna Karenina are incredibly different culturally

7. Teaching style plays a large role.

Some of my greatest educational experiences were from teachers pushing me to read things I wouldn’t have chosen myself. When to teach certain things is important, of course, and a lot of teachers get that wrong. I was pushed into The Scarlet Letter in 7th grade by a poor teacher and hated it.

Much later, a great history teacher had us read it and approached it differently. The book had a much deeper impact this time. I don’t think we should cater to students by letting them read whatever makes them happy, but we need to be aware of where they are and what would provide the right level of challenge. (I also really enjoyed Shakespeare, when presented at the right time).

6. Kids in high school probably already love to read – or not.

By high school, you should be past the ‘learning to love reading’ stage in your educational career. You are in the ‘learn to analyze’ stage of your career. Shakespeare’s plays are well known and heavily analyzed, which makes it easy to check if an analysis has basis or if the student just made something up.

Plus, there are kids to whom Harry Potter and lord of the rings are just as annoying and hard to read as Shakespeare, not to mention that both series, or even one book, are longer than any of Shakespeare’s plays.

5. Popular doesn’t always equal good.

High school English class isn’t about teaching you how to love reading, it’s about:

1) Learning to closely read, interpret, and argue about a potentially difficult piece of writing

2) Attempting to instill some sense of appreciation for the classical literary canon

Books like Harry Potter, as much as I love it, are neither particularly amenable to deep analysis, nor as yet “canonical.”

The Lord of the Rings I can actually see an argument for, although I rather suspect you may be misremembering the circumstances, because I kind of doubt your high school English classes only focused on “American” literature given that Shakespeare was not American.

4. A balance could work.

I think it’s actually important how different Shakespeare is from today’s language. It really challenges your comprehension to read his plays at a high school level. I believe reaching this challenge opens up something inside of you so that when you return to everyday reading, you’re more likely to pick up on subtext. Being able to “read between the lines” in both written and oral communication is critical. This is hugely important when navigating the real world. If you can do that with Shakespeare, you can do it with just about anything.

How often do people say one thing and mean another? In personal relationships and professional discourse, it happens frequently. The advanced reader is more likely to pick up on this subtext, making them better equipped to handle communication in adulthood. This isn’t only important for English majors. You can be an awesome scientist, but if you can’t write a decent grant proposal, good luck getting funding. A scientist with an advanced handle of communication is more likely to be successful, and Shakespeare can unlock some of that potential at an early age.

I do think there is room for contemporary works in high school to help foster a love for reading literature and poetry. I think it’s worth analyzing Kendrick Lamar’s lyrics, for example. But I think Shakespeare should continue to be taught as there is a wealth of existing curriculum surrounding it. Furthermore, its older dialect makes it an intense reading comprehension challenge that can awaken something more advanced in a still developing mind.

3. Maybe it’s the way it’s taught, not what is being taught.

I don’t think the trouble is the material, but rather the way it is taught. For instance, “Shakespeare revolutionized writing!” Great. But how? Instead of simply saying it and expecting everyone to care, show what he did that was so bloody clever we’re still talking about it several hundred years later. For example:

In Shakespeare’s time a slang term for a woman’s vagina was a ‘nothing’. This is because where men had ‘a thing’ a woman had ‘no thing’. Thus the title of Shakespeare’s play “Much Ado About Nothing” translates in common slang to “A Whole Lot of Bother Over Some Pussy”, which is exactly what the play is about.

2. Because you can still learn something.

Here’s a better example of my methodology:

Juliet’s most famous “O Romeo” speech.

The ultra-abridged english version:

Romeo! Why do you have to be from the Montague family! You are not your last name. And what’s a “name”, anyway? No matter what you call things, they still are what they are. So let’s just forget this “name” business, and then I would totally hit that.

Key words that you should know:

  • wherefore = why
  • doff = drop opposite of “don”. Means to “take off” (like clothes).

The non-iambic version:

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? Deny thy father and refuse thy name. Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love and I’ll no longer be a Capulet.

Why are you Romeo (a Montague, cuz our families hate each other)? Run away and change your name. Or, just marry me so I can take your last name and no longer be a Capulet.

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy: Thou art thyself, though not a Montague. What’s Montague? It is nor hand nor foot nor arm nor face nor any other part belonging to a man.

It’s just your name that I’m supposed to hate… And you’re a person, not a last name. A Montague isn’t a “thing”. It’s not your foot or any other physical part of you.

O be some other name.

Just change your damn name.

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet; So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called, retain that dear perfection which he owes without that title.

What are names anyway? A rose is what it is, even if we call it something else. So Romeo would still be just as awesome with a different name.

Romeo, doff thy name, and for that name, which is no part of thee, take all myself.

So drop your name, because names are meaningless and it has nothing to do with who you really are anyway, and then we can totally bone.

Solved! But obviously not something you can just “read”.

1. High school kids are naturally apathetic.

I think it’s worth pointing out that you will hate each and every book you are forced to read. Romeo and Juliet? Well that’s a given, but Fahrenheit 451, 1984, animal farm, a raisin in the sun, etc. Are all great works of fiction that are easy to read and really good stories.

Everyone in my classes hates them just the same. It’s not the content, it’s that you’re being forced to read it. You probably wouldn’t love LOTR if you had to read it (I was forced to in 9th grade, I hate the series even though they are right up my alley in all respects).

I don’t think that tough, boring, or hard-to-relate-to books in high school would turn someone who loves reading off reading for the rest of their lives, but they could discourage kids who could go either way.

That said, I see the merit in most of those classics now – but not all of them.

Where would you fall in this discussion? Weigh in in the comments!