Like any skill, the more you practice the easier it becomes. Sometimes it is hard to help a hormonal kid who’d rather be anywhere else than English class understand that. I had a basketball player in Freshman English, my first year teaching that particular class, who hated to read. Passionately. We had gone round and round in class about Silent Sustained Reading [SSR] time every single Friday for months. It was only 20 minutes once a week. I had learned during first quarter not to give him a bathroom pass or I’d never see him again. But he had endless excuses and tricks to get him through that dreaded 20 minutes.

The reality was, his lexile score (*see below) was really low – as in mid-elementary vocabulary comprehension. Most books at the high school were above his reading ability. He wasn’t going to read little kid’s books, (too embarrassing), and he didn’t want to admit that he couldn’t read the books he’d been checking out, (also too embarrassing). He was stubborn. But I was just as stubborn and I hadn’t had a failure at this yet. I wasn’t going to let him win this fight. We were at war and the whole class knew it.

I couldn’t understand why he couldn’t focus and at least try some of the easier books I’d suggested. He couldn’t understand why I would dedicate an hour every night to reading before I went to sleep. I told him I loved to read. I described how stories came alive in my mind as if they were movies. He said, “That’s stupid.” So one day out of pure frustration – because strangling our precious charges is frowned upon – while arguing them into cooperative behavior was a skill I usually possessed – and hey, no one was able to read while he shuffled about and drove us all crazy anyway – I asked him what he loved to do more than anything and he answered “Play basketball.”

I actually knew that he was a pretty good basketball player because I liked to sit in with the Pep Band during the Varsity games and I’d seen him sitting on the bench while I played trombone from the top of the bleachers. Even as a freshmen, this young man was skilled enough to be JV/ Varsity swing. This was a Very Rare Thing. Almost unheard of in our basketball-crazed sports program. He didn’t get much court time during the Varsity games, but he was there and when he was put in, he was on fire. Totally involved. I wanted that for him in English. I knew he could focus – because I saw it on the court! If I could just find a way to reach him! Aargh!!

Brain working frantically, while the rest of the class enjoyed this new skirmish in our ongoing conflict, I asked him how many hours a day he practiced free throws, lay-ups and other basketball related activities and he mumbled as if counting in his head “4? 5 hours, maybe more. I dunno.” Holy crap! I thought, mind racing. “The coach has you guys here til 7 or 8 at night?” “Nooo, I go out to the court across from my house after dinner until it’s bedtime” he pronounced, eyes rolling, as if it was obvious. Well that explains why homework never gets done, my mind rambled, still flailing for a solution.

Then I had it… “What’s going to happen if you stop practicing basketball? Like if you hurt yourself and miss six months of being on the court?” He said, “I’ll suck.” So I replied “Well, you suck at reading. Right now most 3rd graders read better than you. Is that who you want to be?” “No.” Sullenness was increasing by the moment. I was dissing him in front of his peers (Hah, I am winning a battle!! Take that!) and he didn’t much like it.

“You can’t read because you stopped practicing. It’s just like basketball. If you don’t practice it, you aren’t any good at it. If you do practice, you will get better.” He looked doubtful but didn’t argue. I rushed on “If you promise to read an hour…” “An hour!!” Sheer outrage there. “Okay, even 20 minutes each day you’ll get better at it and it will get easier.” “But I hate all that made up S—.” Most of his classmates picked fiction novels to read and he had scorned all of their suggestions too.

We’d been working our way through the Dewey Decimal system and were up to the 900’s. It was the start of third quarter of school. I was running out of time. I needed to win a skirmish decisively. I had to reach this kid. So, that Monday we went down to the library and I introduced him to autobiographies about sports stars. “There are books about real people?” “Yeah – there are lots of books about real things. Haven’t you been paying attention to the other 800 topics in the Dewey Decimal System?” “The what?” My turn to roll my eyes and sigh dramatically. I could speak teen too.

He grumbled that Friday as I called out SSR time. It took him almost ten minutes to settle, but he did eventually find his book, get a glass of water, put away his other materials, and eventually read for the other ten. And the week after he got his book out just a tiny little bit faster. Of course, he did have to give just a bit of battle still – got to protect his manhood and all. I got that and didn’t pay attention because he was actually doing the bloody assignment. The room was at peace. Everyone was reading.

And he did eventually finish that first book.  And he checked out another. There were times he didn’t know words, so I would pull down a dictionary and then we looked them up together and talked about them. (This was before the ubiqitiousness of cell phones.) One day came when he went and got the dictionary by himself, looked something up then went quietly went back to his seat. He looked at me and got a thumbs-up and a grin. I got a shy grin back. SSR was a quiet haven in all three of my Freshman English classes. Finally. Peace accords had been reached. Hallelujah!

That quarter his book report was actually about a book instead of a bad report on a movie based on a book. And his lexile score went up a grade and a half. Still elementary level… my evil twin said in my head. I told her to shut up and be happy.

At the end of the year he told me: “I’m never going to like this as much as I like basketball, but at least I know there’s good stuff to read now and I am better at it than my [older] brother because I practiced.” Triumph!!! Let the trumpets ring out!!!! My brain clamored; while I just gave him a smile and said “Good for you!”

* Lexile scores are two part. The material being read is scored to show how difficult the vocabulary is. And individuals can take a test to find out their individual lexile score so that they know what level lexile material they ‘should’ be reading. The idea is to read at the upper edge of your range to increase your skills over time. Our district had taken lexile measures on as the shiny-new-toy one year and it had stuck. I had found it fairly useful for helping students with lower reading abilities find reading materials that wouldn’t overwhelm them. (The readers with extremely high scores had a hard time finding books at their level so they got to go for thematic challenges instead.)

While lexile levels are not grade specific there are ranges that tend to fall around certain grades. For example, a 3rd grader usually reads vocabulary at a lexile level between 330L and 700L. The young man in my story had fallen in the lower half of this range. If you go to lexile.com and enter that range into their database, then choose a subject, they will give you a list of books appropriate for that reader. That doesn’t mean that the material is appropriate for the 3rd grader, or in my case a high school freshman, just that the vocabulary is at the right level for their skill.