Johnny, ‘Take Up and Read, Take Up and Read’

Jan 21, 2016 by

Jeffrey Pflaum –

The motivation to read is about an inside feel, what a child experiences in his mind, imagination, and body while reading. If Johnny is distracted, the images, feelings, thoughts, reflections, real life experiences, and worlds normally open to him, get lost in a maze of self-talk, confusion, misunderstanding, and finally, lead to a boring reader. Throw in the electro-techno world of computer/video games, the Internet, and social media to his life with their high-speed action, imagery, buzz, and brain-frying fun, and you now have a child whose concentration is divided between his uncreated imagination and the external surreal pictures and universes inviting him to playtime. And don’t forget that many children are turned off to reading because of an obsession with testing, test prepping, and test scores: Why would Johnny take up and read—and for fun?

We’re losing our kids to the ever-increasing pace of technology and must find a way back home to the inside world, to inner experience, and what they can produce using their own abilities. Get them to slow down to discover their creativity and be motivated to read from the inside out. The big question is: How do we get Johnny to take up and read? I don’t mean giving him money for scoring high on reading tests. For Johnny to become a reader, and not a pro video game player, he has to want it by finding his own reasons.

Teachers can motivate adolescent readers using a tri-weekly question-and-answer strategy, where diverse, creative, entertaining, and challenging questions are asked about reading life experiences. Students write responses, which are always followed up by a brief discussion.

An inquiry- and passion-based approach includes: questions, thinking, recalling, visualizing, reflecting, concentrating, discussing, probing, speaking, listening, contemplating, collaborating, reviewing, evaluating, and assimilating—call it “the slow school of learning.”

As discussion leaders, teachers and parents engage children in a conversation to help re-create their attitude and re-vitalize an ever-diminishing passion for reading. By listening openly to what is expressed in writing and verbally, and delving deeper into the responses by teaching students to think about, reflect on, and contemplate what has been said, a new awareness and mindfulness to reading will evolve.

No doubt this strategy demands effort, energy, patience, and perseverance by students and teachers alike. Searching long and hard for the best answers and discussing them works and will create change. This is not a watered-down approach because the mini-lessons—10 to 15 minutes per—show kids the magic of reading (sorry, but it’s still there despite what testing has tried to destroy). Ideally, reading can become a 3D, holographic, virtual reality that simulates the virtual electro-techno worlds. If adolescents can imagine being avatars while reading books, where feelings, thoughts, images, and real-life experiences are all wrapped up in the process, they will realize an intrinsic motivation to read and re-discover a love of reading.

In my book, Motivating Teen and Preteen Readers: How Teachers and Parents Can Lead the Way (Rowman & Littlefield Education), I made up many provocative questions to help empower young people—struggling, reluctant, and even “good” readers—to enjoy reading beyond the testing culture. There are different categories of questions on:

  • Common everyday reading experiences
  • Early reading life
  • Reading process
  • Words
  • Writing, drawing, and creativity
  • Opinions
  • Quotations

Each category fuels journeys into reading’s infinite inner landscapes, rarely discussed in our classrooms because no one, sadly, has the time in their test-prep schedules.

Written responses are followed by open-minded and open-ended talks. Self-evaluations and “chats” between adults and children become reflections of what the kids learned. Brainstorming sessions featuring prompts or sparks on reading, writing, creativity and imagination evaluate and sum up a year of inquiry. Adolescents learn to connect with reading and set goals for their reading lives through self-examination, self-discovery and self-motivation. They gain fresh perspectives and take on the responsibility, and the challenge, for determining their destinies via self-knowledge and self-education.

The key driving force behind my teaching method is asking questions. The right questions at the right times trigger deeper innersights into children’s reading lives and help to transform them. What do you think the chances are of changing children’s attitudes after they reflect upon, write about, discuss, and assess themselves after answering over 100 questions on reading, the reading process, and reading life experiences for a school year?

Think about it: Can you fit in 3 or more questions-a-week? Will the contemplative nature of an-depth process return the magic and passion back to reading? Will adolescents get an inside feel about reading once again and forget the test-anxiety created by the school system? I believe and have found that it will happen.


           Jeffrey Pflaum with illustrations by James Jajac

Check out a sampling of the diverse questions: As you read them, mentally formulate how you might respond to each by visualizing, reflecting on, and contemplating your reading and reading life experiences. After each question, I will add my comments, thoughts, and ideas in italics:

  • Visualize and draw a happy reader reading in his reading world.

Let’s get them “happy” by visualizing a reader having fun reading alone. Asking students to draw pictures about reading life is a switch from the routine tasks regularly assigned. Think of questions you might ask your class using the technique of “visualize and draw” for answers. They can draw quick pencil sketches, but remind them: “’Masterpieces’ are not necessary.” Let kids hold up the drawings and narrate any thoughts and feelings triggered. This activity sets up positive feelings toward reading because the pictures will be appreciated and produce some laughs as well.

When I create questions, in whatever subject it may be, I am always thinking about expanding their meanings in class discussions, and doing it spontaneously—not an easy task. I can’t predict where the questions will lead until I think about, reflect on, and contemplate the answers mentally before our talks. I ask myself: “Where will this question take us? Will it drive deeper into the self-motivation needed by every child to become lifelong readers and learners? What ‘undercurrents’ are in the questions? How will they affect my kids’ future reading life experiences?”


                        Jeffrey Pflaum with illustrations by James Jajac

  • What was the first book you remember reading by yourself? What thoughts are triggered? What feelings come back to you?

This might not be a difficult question for elementary school kids because that early book is not that far away from them. If they can tap into this crucial experience, you can really strike a positive motivational reading vein, or possibly, the opposite. What do I mean?

Maybe a child sees how “bad” that early experience was, and just maybe, it led to his dislike of reading from the beginning. Writing about negative reading experiences, expressing emotions and thoughts, might reduce the hurt and open up the child to a better attitude toward reading.

Let’s not forget early independent reading, where reading was a great adventure and an experience to have conquered alone. Such courage to read by yourself and have a good time in your mind and imagination! It’s a “see-cruise” for the child: his first experiences as the avatar in his self-created inner world of reading.

  • Think of a word that makes you feel “scared. Silently say the word over and over again to yourself for a minute. Describe what you just experienced.

Words are important; they leave traces, trails, and residues in our minds. Words aren’t made out of air or come from nowhere. Words are affective, and also, are springboards for other words, images, ideas, and a lot of self-talk. If you want kids to grow as readers, take the building blocks—words—and show them they are more than black-on-white or “things” that appear on a page or on standardized tests.

Words help, words hurt, but they also can heal. As adults we have plenty of “fear words,” and kids, on their level, and maybe an adult level as well, have their share. I mentioned one already, one that is scary for children and their teachers: “test.” Now think of the word “test” and what do you see, feel, think, and experience? Word-storm or free-associate “test” and see where it takes you. What places did you travel to? How far did you go?

  • Always read as if it is your first time. Explain.

I had to look at this statement a few times before I understood it. This is a question that takes students back to their early reading life experiences. I want them to re-connect and re-live the event. I want them to find it in their mind’s eye, feel what happened, think about and reflect on it, and hopefully, re-experience the intensity, seriousness, and self-entertaining and challenging aspects of the reading process from the beginning.

Do you remember those early reading days when you were so into it, trying hard all the time to sound out words and understand what in the world you were reading, and trying to put it all together in one big soup to swallow and enjoy? Do you recall being “all over” each word, trying to make sense of everything, because at an early age, misunderstanding what you read could be disastrous? So you got into the words with gusto, listened to their sounds and made sense of them, and then sat back when you finished and relaxed, because you knew what you were doing, and took a deep breath to catch your breath…

  • How does the outside world fade away so quickly once you begin to read? How does this happen? Is it an easy or hard switch for you to make? Why?

Amazing when you think about this process: Pick up a book and from the first word(s), reality disappears, and you enter a twilight zone that you navigate with your inner or mind’s eye as an imaginary avatar. Johnny is “far in” when he experiences what he reads. Let kids see the creative, surreal, hypnotic quality of reading as they step from an outer to an inner zone of experience.

And the last part of the question (“Is it an easy or hard switch to make?), gives me an idea about the distraction level of certain struggling, reluctant, and “good” readers, because they can’t slide into this change of worlds so easily. If there are conflicts, interrupting thoughts, feelings, experiences, and self-talk, then there is interference with the reading process. I want to point it out to the kids in the discussion.

So when children pick up a book to read, they will be more aware of the energy, concentration, and effort that should be focused on reading words from a page. In this sense, reading approaches a meditative or contemplative act. And I want to know why it’s a “hard” or an “easy” switch to make. This is key to our class discussion about going from an outer to inner world experience.


                     Jeffrey Pflaum with illustrations by James Jajac

  • Do you have to “fight yourself,” at times, to read? Why?

The way reading is shaped today in education, with quantity favored over quality reading, I believe there are a great number of children who wind up fighting inside themselves every time they have to read a book from their “reading lists.” The school list, which can amount to 30 or more books to be read in addition to their regular reading assignments, might prompt Johnny to find the nearest basketball court, TV remote, Internet/video game, or phone friends to “complete the task.”

The question asks them to search for honest answers about the times when reading becomes an “avoidance-avoidance” conflict. What are the inner battle(s) preventing him from getting into the book? What self-talk is going on inside the mind? What is being imagined? What thoughts and feelings are going through his head? How can he settle these issues when—or before—they come up so he can read-in-peace? As discussion leaders, get things out in the open and help kids release the conflicts that inhibit reading.

Jeffrey Pflaum with illustrations by James Jajac

                   Jeffrey Pflaum with illustrations by James Jajac

  • Why read poetry?

When I taught poetry in a tough inner-city school, the students thought I was “nuts.” My main purpose was to use poetry to help them with reading prose because it triggers phenomenal imagery, emotions, thoughts, and real-life experiences. For me, it means “deeper” reading, pushing kids to work harder, challenging them to find answers to a “puzzle,” as well as meaning, understanding, and enjoyment.

It also develops greater self-awareness, self-knowledge, and self-understanding. Poetry was not one of my biggest thrills when I was in school. I wasn’t exactly comfortable teaching it either as we all ventured together into the “unknown.” The question reveals how kids experience poetry. Discuss their ideas openly through an inquiry technique to find their connection or disconnection to a relevant school subject.

  • Make up an absurd, ridiculous, silly sentence and write it. (b) Visualize the sentence

and draw or sketch the picture created in your mind. (c) What thoughts came up

as you finished the activity?

Here again I use the “visualize-and-draw” technique. I love the absurd, ridiculousness, and silliness in “things,” whatever they may be. It illuminates the world in a funny, strange way and motivates kids to learn. For example, I teach my “Reading-and-Imagining Project” starting with two-word sentences, first real, and second, surreal: “Children play” leads to “Children float.”

Let freedom ring if you try this question out with your students. Visualization is crucial to the reading process and reading life experiences. It might seem “easy” to some children and teachers, but this process needs to be practiced as a “prerequisite fundamental skill” for reading, learning, and living, one that will help students comprehend and enjoy what they’re doing.

If they have a little trouble getting those “visuals” or mind-pictures clear in their heads, try some absurd visualization activities. Ask them to create silly sentences—or paragraphs—and see what their responses are. If they laugh at the sentence, ask them the obvious question: “Why is it funny?” Have them describe the picture they see in their mind and imagination.

Take it a step further with drawing or quick sketching the sentence. Enrich the description and drawing by asking what the sentence gets them to think about—a little reflection. From there, check out how the sentence, picture, and description make them feel.

  • Athletes say they’re playing-in-the-zone when at their best. Describe your reading experience when you are reading-in-the-zone.

I asked questions about problematic reading situations, when kids hit walls or experience conflicts, and have to fight themselves to read or when starting to read a book. There can be all sorts of interruptions before a child begins reading. A question-and-answer approach introduces dialogue and discussion where kids can potentially release bottled up feelings and thoughts about reading, the reading process, and their reading life experiences.

I would like to know the “goods” about reading, when it feels like self-entertainment, when children live in that “self-amusement park of the imagination” and have a great time, when they discover the enchantment of reading.

Keys to an inquiry strategy in teaching and learning are talking, discussing, and most importantly, listening: What do others think about this? What are their experiences? How can their responses help out classmates? This “cross-fertilization of ideas” completes the inquiry process, for without it, you just have busy-work, nothing more, nothing less.

Maybe the kids who struggle and are reluctant to read can pick up ideas about “being-in-the-zone” when reading, ones they can’t figure out and apply to their own situations. What does it mean to experience the “delights of reading”? Can reading go beyond its functional aspect to get a good grade on standardized tests? Does reading ever get past the quantity of books kids “have-to-read”? When does reading become dreamlike and surreal?

  • If you were teaching a young child how to read, what motivating idea(s) would you try to communicate about reading? Why?

Yes, a trick question in a way, which tries to get at how the “student-teacher” really sees

reading. How would they motivate reading in a young child? The question compels them to think about the reading life experiences they have gone through. To answer it, kids become reading tutors and have to conjure up their ideas. It gets them to “re-view,” “re-visit,” and possibly “re-think” and “re-vise” their reading lives, as they understand and appreciate them, and then convey it to young readers. How are they going to set them on the “best” path to the world of reading?

The questions trigger self-reflection and will hopefully lead to greater self-awareness about their reading lives and create or “re-create” the undiscovered or lost passion to read. What are the reasons to read? Why do you read?

Discussion of the responses to this question will give students an expanded perspective about reading. The inquiry method illuminates “darker” and unknown areas in children’s “reading selves” and might lead them to the fountain of a rejuvenated reading life…

  • Reading everyday quietly changes your world.” (Jeffrey Pflaum) Explain.

The main word is “quietly,” because now, and especially with testing insanity, students

wind up losing sight, or “inner-sight,” of the benefits of reading. What are the benefits that “quietly change our worlds”? My reflections lead to: feelings, for better or worse, to feel things, to experience my self and “reading self,” to enjoy myself in thought in the “mind’s magic reading theater,” to play around in the imagination, the “self-amusement park” living in our mind, digging deeper each time to see a little more, whether it’s in a poem, short story, novel, or history book, to enjoy being alone, the solitude of my world, and to connect with the writer’s imagination.

There are so many things happening while we read on a day-in and day-out basis that most of the time we are not even aware of the subtle affects/effects reading has on our students and us. With this question I want to draw out some ideas and inner journeys that probably pass the children by.

  • Reading seizes the moment.” (Jeffrey Pflaum) Explain by giving an example.

There are two other original statements I made up that connect with the above statement: “Wherever you read, there you are” and “When you read, read.” Here the relevant word for kids to figure out when responding is “seizes.” Reading grabs the moment—and you—with all its energy. And you, the reader, must match that energy with your concentration, enthusiasm, and effort to get right into the story as an avatar moving along in this vast inner landscape.

You’re IT, and when you are, you have reciprocated and seized this moment in time. You will be in the NOW of the book you’re reading because you’ve become the book or story, yes, you’re lost inside, and that’s a good thing.

I want that intensity along with the fun and creative aspects of reading mixed together. If this happens, kids begin to understand that reading can become a virtual reality through emotion, reflection, focus, visualization, and contemplation. A teacher, as he walked past my classroom and looked at the kids reading a novel, commented: “They look like they’re praying.” “Sure,” I thought, “It’s a little like silent reading.”

Reading is about being there, whether you’re reading fiction or non-fiction. In our discussion, I try to get a feel for the class’s level of intensity and concentration when they read. You might want to ask students to: “Rate on a scale from 0 to 10, how much ‘reading seizes the moment’, where 0 = hardly seizes the moment, and 10 = totally seizes the moment. Give reasons for your rating.”

  • Reading ‘televises’ your mind back to you.” (Jeffrey Pflaum) Explain.

Kind of a quirky question, but it focuses on your state of mind when reading. For example, if students feel pressured to finish a book for an assignment or a test, comprehension can break down because of the speed and anxiety involved in reading. When children—and adults—read under these circumstances, they often misunderstand what is read, and hopefully, will relax and calm the mind before continuing.

If a student is in a better frame of mind, reading turns into a fun tour through the inside world, and he is driving the entire process forward with concentration, imagination, feeling, real-life experiences, and self-motivation. The point to convey during discussion is how reading is a barometer that shows children whether they are in good, bad, ugly, or neutral places mentally and emotionally.

If they are in one of the latter three states, they need to pull themselves out by slowing down, taking some deep breaths, doing a breath meditation, listening to music, or counting backwards, silently, from 50 to 1, to see what’s floating around inside and letting it go…and then, getting their heads back into the books…

  • Reflect on your reading and reading life experiences for two minutes. What do you see, visualize, imagine, think, feel, and remember? Do you foresee changes in your reading and reading life? Explain your answers.

Reflection and self-reflection are talked about a lot in education and how important they are in learning. As you get closer to the end of the school year with your questions on reading, the reading process, and reading life, this reflection should create a “stream of memories,” while at the same time, integrate those experiences to give kids a renewed outlook on all things reading.

If children can connect the many events from their past reading experiences, it will potentially set up a new vision for their future reading lives. This can be a difficult summary question because of the involved re-search for answers, however, if kids gain inner-sight from the reflections, it will produce a meaningful path they can take.

Have them individually and collectively brainstorm a stream-of-memories and let it all hang out on the final days of school. Leave students some things to think about as they go off into the summer sunset.

One area of discussion I would really get into is the “changes they foresee.” Let them set goals for their summer reading and the upcoming school year. A cross-fertilization of ideas helps in this situation to inspire kids through the experiences of their classmates.

If an inquiry- and passion-based approach to reading doesn’t stir up the adolescent imagination, if it doesn’t send messages through their minds, if their reflections about reading fade away rapidly, then we are hopelessly lost in the residues of the No Child Left Behind Act, The Race to the Top, and now, the final blow, the Common Core…

Are we creating “A Nation of Readers” today through the bizarre world of education?

For more information, references, and related EDUCATION NEWS posts by the author and others, please check out these resources:

  • Motivating Teen and Preteen Readers: How Teachers and Parents Can Lead the

Way by Jeffrey Pflaum (Rowman & Littlefield Education, August 2011). Here you will find over 1,000 original, creative, absurd, challenging, and thought provoking questions to motivate all levels of adolescent readers, from the uninspired to the inspired, in grades 3 – 9.

  • “Silent Reading” by David Lance Goines. The link is: This piece talks about the origins of “silent reading” and St. Augustine’s connection to it. This is a great article for teachers of all kinds.


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1 Comment

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    Thank you for such a wealth of helpful information!

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