My students don’t read!

We have the books or we can get them on the Internet, but the teacher's advices are essential.

I won’t insult you by reminding you how important it is to read. Let’s go straight to the point. To be honest, there is no good recipe to make every student read. The lack of motivation can have a very broad range of causes. The job of the teacher will be to diagnose the main reasons and try to address it. Here are some of the possibilities I can think of. Please, share your experience, if you can add any other to my list.

We have the books or we can get them on the Internet, but the teacher’s advices are essential.

Material reasons

  • They can’t read because they have disabilities. Students with bad eyes see a blurry page. In their daily practice at school, they are sometimes able to hide this trouble, but it results in too much fatigue for an extensive reading at home. If it is the case, tell the parents to get them spectacles.

  • Buying books can be a burden for the families. Or maybe the student thinks that it will be a burden, even if it isn’t true. Books are expensive and sometimes they don’t dare to ask. People in need are very shy with this matter. The students prefer to get bad marks instead of confessing that they cannot afford the book.
  • Reading a novel takes a lot of time. Typically, an average novel requires at least ten hours. That’s two weeks if the students read one hour per working day. They need a minimum of organization. The free time of the students isn’t always that free. We tend to consider that every minute spent out of the school is free time, but it’s not. They may have to spend a lot of time in transportation. They have duties at home, to help with the cleaning, the cooking or the care of younger children. It’s especially true with the girls. Sometimes, they may even have to work in order to get some money or are expected to help at the farm. On the contrary, rich children may have troubles to deal with multiple hobbies: a football competition, music lessons or whatever. Quite a lot of families put great expectations on those activities, for they are associated with fame or social status. Let’s discuss with the family. Of course computers and TV are killers in regard to reading.
  • The kids don’t have a safe and quiet place at home for extensive reading. In some families, even the homework is difficult to organize, if they don’t have their own room, which is probably the case for most Cambodians. When you share your room with siblings, it can be very difficult to read at night with an artificial light. So, the students will have to find the right place and the right time to read. It may be necessary to speak with the parents to find a solution.
  • Friends and family can destroy your efforts to make them read. Let’s be honest, you will have to compete with the football team, the girlfriend and the little brother. Involve the parents if necessary.


  • First, the worst scenario, the student just can’t read. As there is a selection process at the New Generation Schools, it should not be too frequent. However there are students who don’t have enough training to be able to read without too much fatigue. It will take maybe ten minutes to read one page. The failure in this learning can have a lot of reasons. High school teachers rarely have the means to make a full diagnosis of dyslexia.
It’s always useful to put a face on a name. Here is Nero.
  • The students don’t understand the context. If the story takes place in a foreign civilization or in ancient time, it can be very weird for the students. For a child, it’s not obvious that the smartphone didn’t exist two decades ago, that cars were pulled by horses, or that the speed of an army was about 20 kilometers a day, on foot. Sometimes a few explanations about the historical context make the reading much easier. The French play Britannicus seems very difficult for a teenager at first glance. But he needs to know just a few things to appreciate it. For instance, Agrippina calls her son “César”. The average student immediately thinks of Julius Caesar, the conqueror of Gauls, at least because of the comic book Asterix. And he doesn’t understand why Nero is called that way. But Caesar has become the title of all the Roman emperors. It’s the same as calling him “Sire” or “the king”. You also need to tell the students who’s who. For instance Nero is the young emperor. He has succeeded to Claudius. The later was murdered by his second wife, Agrippina, who is the mother of Nero. Claudius had a real son, Britannicus, but Agrippina has managed to remove him from power. Any reader with a historical background also knows that Nero will eventually kill his mother. And that’s it! It’s enough to understand the play! If you want, you can add a few spicy anecdotes about the death of Agrippina or the crimes of Nero, but it’s not necessary. In my experience as a Literature teacher, to spend just half an hour for this who’s who session before they read the book is very efficient.

  • They don’t understand the words or they misinterpret them. Misinterpretation is worst, because it’s despairing. They know all the words (or they believe they do) but they still don’t understand the sentence! And they don’t know how to ask questions! If there is a brand new word, it’s easy to ask its definition. But if no word is totally new, they don’t know what they don’t understand. Be very careful about the words whose meaning have changed throughout history, and the words that have various meanings in different classes of the society. For instance, they will spontaneously ask the meaning of hyménée, a poetic French word for marriage. But they will not ask anything about ennui (boredom or little trouble in modern French, but a deep suffering in the 17th century). They will not see why Don Diègue speaks about heart (cœur) just before a dual in le Cid of Corneille, because they associate it with love. In fact, avoir du cœur in this play means to be courageous. Usually, you need to elicit the vocabulary only in the first ten pages of the book. Indeed the authors tend to use the same words all the time. If you’ve read successfully one play of Racine, the second one is rather easy (not that true with Shakespeare, who had an insanely rich vocabulary).


  • They prefer other topics. It should not be too much of a problem for free reading programs such as the one we are currently implementig in the New Generation School, but it sure is a problem for normal assignements. The very obligation to read can destroy the whole pleasure of reading. It’s especially true if the students don’t like their school in the first place. But it is another question. If you have to assign a specific book, I think it’s better to choose something they wouldn’t choose spontaneously, in order to enlarge their sight. Better Balzac than Tolkien to study in class. But I strongly recommend to read Tolkien for leisure. To put it more clearly, I choose demanding books for class study, and I follow the students’ taste for extensive reading.
  • They think we don’t care that much. Usually, they get only a small mark amongst many others for their reading. They value the reading after what we tell them and after the amount of time they spend on it. As a matter of fact, reading isn’t the most cost effective action at school, if you consider only the school record. We know that it is quite the contrary in the long term for their real life, but it’s not obvious to the students. That’s why we created a Personal Reading Journal in our school, to record specifically their successes in reading and encourage them.
Reading is interesting enough by itself, but it’s still good to encourage the students.
  • They don’t know where to start. When you enter a good library, it’s quite impressive. A reasonably big library in a French high school can have as many as 10 000 books. Too much choice. The students need some guidance. It’s very useful to provide a shorter list. Generally, people are happy to choose between 10 or 20 possibilities, if they can get some information about them.
  • On the contrary, the offer may be too low at certain locations. Very small libraries are surprisingly underused, maybe because the students don’t expect to find anything of interest in them. Nowadays, tablets and Internet have dramatically increased the availability of books. I’ll put a few links below. But we fall into the previous difficulty.


However, don’t worry too much about the motivation itself. In general people love stories. It’s a very deep need of the human psyche. Children love to listen to faery tales. They love a good fiction on TV. Maybe they don’t like the novel, but appreciate the very same story on the screen, even or especially if it is an old story. Usually, the problem is just the difficulty of the task. It’s hard to imagine the fancy gowns of Victorian ladies or the bright uniforms of the Napoleonic era, when you just read. The guidance of the teacher can prove very useful. It’s not difficult today to find pictures to support the students’ imagination.

The links to the ebooks

First, you should get a good ebook reader, if you  want to read them on your PC.

Then, to get the ebooks, always prefer epub files when they are available:

Project Gutenberg  (many languages)

Of course Google book, not very practical, but it is the most important library in the world!

Beaucoup d’ebooks gratuits en français

Les classiques des sciences sociales

La bibliothèque électronique du Québec


In Khmer (I don’t know the quality):

eLibrary of Cambodia

Let’s read









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