Why Your Students Cheat on Their Reading

Are your students completing their summer reading? Do they make up their reading logs, read online summaries, and fake the work?

If so, it might not be their fault.

Teachers choose books with the best of intentions—they want to expose kids to the books that made them love reading. Still, this time-honored system of assigning reading needs to change. That’s because modern reading is changing: Web-based reading, digital literacy, and embedded text mean students are reading every time they pick up a device, not just when they sit down with a book. 

Reading is changing for everyone—click, read, swipe, fast-forward. Reading in the 21st century isn’t what it used to be. We all read a lot more, and at a lower level. We want students to continue to read a lot, and also attain the higher-level skills that will serve them most—vocabulary, research, and discernment of quality sources.  

In order to develop these skills, we need to ask ourselves how we measure quality and quantity of reading practice along the way. 

This is critical, as students seem to be revolting against the canon at alarming rates. The members of Generation Z are a whole different type of student—digitally literate and questioning. Because they’re unlike any other generation before them, it is important to review traditional practices every day to see if you can make something work a little better for everyone involved. 

If you are successful, your students will love reading. Instead of complaining, cheating, or avoiding reading assignments, they will take this love with them throughout their whole lives. 

Questions to ask:
  • Must I assign this particular book?  

  • Are daily logs helpful?  

  • Does tracking reading increase or decrease improvement?  

  • Should kids read every single day, or might they benefit from binge-reading things they love?  

  • Do I need students to prove what they read ad nauseum with reports, logs, charts, and summer assignments?  


Make it interesting and they will read

Here is an example of success from author and edtech educator Dawn Casey-Rowe:

“They need to improve their reading and writing. They’re not where we need them to be.”  

I was speaking with an educational leader—the guy who gets “the scores.”  Several teachers were in the background, talking about constructing paragraphs, finding thesis statements, using organizers, and assigning writing tools. 

There seemed to be a disconnect, however. Kids—our ultimate customers—were saying they didn’t like the tools and hated the writing and reading assignments at the same time as we were shoving more upon them.  

“I used to love reading and writing,” one kid said. “This makes me hate it.”  

That’s not what I want to accomplish here. 

“They need to improve—they’re not there yet!” the adults said, adding another paragraph constructor tool to the pile. The kids revolted. We have now left “education” and entered a “battle of wills.”  

The situation described above is a place nobody wants to be. You don’t always have to entertain your students with lessons and selections, but you do need to show them value. They become willing participants and improve more if you tap into the things they love. If you find the things they want to read about, the results are amazing. By building academic skills upon passions, even kids who thought they hated reading step up and admit it’s fun.  

Do this in a variety of ways—offer book choice, provide a variety of articles and have students choose a certain number to read, or assign “expert teams” to find their own selections and evaluate source credibility. In this way, students are more likely to be exposed to material they love, which will keep them reading and inspire them to share their experiences with the class. 

Is reading together the solution?

Dawn Casey-Rowe again:

We recently stopped our weekly “reading period" in school. Reading period was supposed to inspire kids to read, because even adults would drop everything and pick up a book. 

The problem: Not all kids were doing it. Instead of providing a reading utopia where kids became inspired to read, the reading period became a nap or babysitting period. What was intended as a gift ended up being a punishment. Since students received a grade—intended as a free 100 in my class—it served to punish kids who already hated reading. 

We failed. Reading period morphed from a joy to an obligation, and it showed. Perhaps a better solution would be to embed optional reading time into a quiet advisory in which students can either read or get help on class assignments. Everyone would have time to read but also get the opportunity to do other things they needed to do for class as well.” 

The key to passion is individualization

If you want students to improve their reading and writing, you have to let them read about things they love. Kids need many opportunities to read, but without finding their passion, reading can be torture. Aftr all, how many instruction manuals have you been thrilled to read?

When students hate the things we make them read, two things happen. They begin to think they hate reading in general, then they find a way around the problem—they cheat or avoid the assignments. Dawn Casey-Rowe shared her own experience with this phenomenon.

Years ago, some teachers I knew discovered kids cheating on summer reading, so they picked new books with no Cliff or Spark Notes available. The problem was that the books were awful. Cliff and Spark skipped them for a reason. Even I didn’t like them! I shut them and shoved them on my shelf. Today, thanks to Amazon reviews and the internet, every book out there comes with a summary, so if kids don’t want to read, they won’t. 

This year, one kid told me about a summer reading victory. “I loved Berlin Boxing Club,” he said. He told me all about it. Soon, a group of students circled around, connecting the book to material from other classes and things they were doing.  

That’s a reading victory!

Can we get students to do that on their own, all the time? Yes. But first, we need to ask this question: “What happens if kids read what they want?" If the answer is “Nothing,” it’s a good time to invite choice into your classroom. If you and the class need that common experience of reading a particular book, assign the piece—but first, explain the value of the reading and promise there are more exciting materials ahead. You could say, “Feel free to suggest something you love that covers this objective, and I’ll try to work it in.” 

This does two things—it keeps kids on the lookout (you really make them feel special when you integrate their finds into your lessons) and it keeps them reading and evaluating material.

How do I get this right?

If you decide summer reading is beneficial, you want to delight students. With so many student interests, how does a teacher get this right?

Put students on the task. You can form a volunteer group, or have students curate and share top-ten books in several categories as a class assignment. Teach students to write Amazon-style reviews with the goal of making grade-wide reading lists. Then, get student input on how they’d like to read. Should they read a book a month? Two books a quarter? Should there be share-outs, reviews, mini book clubs, paragraphs, showcases, or journals? If students help design the process, they’ll be invested in the results. Not only that, but you asked them for help and they ended up producing critical evaluations of books they love. That’s a win-win!

If not reading logs, then what?

Many schools encourage students to read by coloring in goal thermometers or putting stars on charts to represent books that were read. Students must work toward goals of reading ten, twenty, or thirty books a year. Goal-setting is great, but having to read a certain number of books can be problematic.  

Some kids read chapter books earlier than others. In the goal-setting paradigm, they may feel longer books are a punishment, since they won’t complete the required number to “win.” Does one student’s 25 Dr. Seuss books trump another’s novel? 

The face of reading is changing, and we’ve got to be willing to change with it. Web-based reading composes a large percentage of what kids do right now, and it’ll be a big chunk of what they’ll do in college and for their careers. We need to count everything—books, articles, and instructional texts. Whether it’s a scrolling video game script read in real time, a curated brief in an inbox, an online article, text in a book, or Shakespeare, it all counts. 

Additionally, reading competitively (saying ”You must read a certain number of books”) can be frustrating for kids. Why not create a reading review wall instead? First, make a template for Amazon-style reviews so students can post about what they’ve read. They can color in stars as if they were real reviewers. A quality review will give a recommendation, backing it up with facts. Allow students to review and post about anything with text—articles, books, fiction, non-fiction, games, etc.—and teach them the skills of being an expert reviewer. 

This serves two purposes: It gets students used to persuasive writing and authority-based reviews, and it lets them post their opinions on a variety of different styles of writing for the world to see. Let students place stickers near reviews to indicate which were helpful and which they liked. 

You can even have a book review party at the end of the year themed around some class favorites, with awards for standout performance, effort, or certain genres of reading. 

When you make reading goals about passions and give students some skin in the game, you’ll get the entire class on board. 


Reading must have value

It is amazing that some kids who avoid paper books like the plague will read for hours on the computer. Kids who seem to struggle with basic reading zoom through fifteen-syllable Pokemon character names and descriptions. 

Dawn Casey-Rowe again:

“How do you read that?” I ask. They shrug. I know the answer—they love the subject area. 

I often get kids to read books from my personal library by using their interests.   

 “I thought of you and brought this in. I think you’ll like it. Let me know what you think.” I’ll say. I tell them why I thought of them and what they can do with the info. I get amazing results for two reasons. One, I’ve given the students special treatment—my time and access to something I picked just for them. Two, I’ve held them accountable by saying I’m excited to hear what they have to say. 

I do this a lot with professional entrepreneurship books. These are adult, professional books, but marketed right, teens can’t get enough. Two I often circulate are Ramit Sethi’s “I Will Teach You to Be Rich” and James Altucher’s “Choose Yourself.” They’re about making money—what teen doesn’t love money? I also get them to read motivation and inspiration books—anything by Tony Robbins, Kamal Ravikant’s “Live Your Truth,” and selections from the Seth Godin library. 

Some of these are affordable on Kindle, so I’ll gift a copy or two to kids who promise to read. It works—I’m actually saving money this way, because invariably I lose a few books. Kindling them is cheaper. 

This is the bottom line: We must rethink age-old reading assignments and methods as Generation Z changes the definition of what it means to be a student. Things that worked in the past may need to be questioned, tweaked, or changed, and that’s perfectly OK. Teach students to follow their passions and they’ll develop a lifelong interest in reading, along with the skills to dig into the world of knowledge and create big things. 

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