How to Spot a Fake (Reader)

by Laura Lambert

Photo credit: A. Chederros, ONOKY/Getty Images

Last Christmas, my then 6-year-old asked for — and received — a huge set of Roald Dahl books. She was in love with her first grade teacher and her first grade teacher loved Roald Dahl. It was as simple as that.

I won’t lie — as a parent, I was beyond thrilled. I, too, read Roald Dahl at her age and I was looking forward to reading his books again now, with new eyes. I gloated, seeing her on her bed, reading independently (!!) in first grade (!!). All those sight word issues from kindergarten, ha! Those were just bumps in the road.

The first book was Matilda — which she picked because she’d seen the movie. For a few nights, I read aloud to her and she loved talking to me about the story. Then I asked her to read to me. My elation faded a bit as she mechanically stumbled through the sentences. It faded even further when she couldn’t remember what she had just read about Miss Honey or Matilda’s horrid parents — or, tellingly, when she remembered something ahead of the plot, from the movie. And then I realized, this girl isn’t reading.

She’s a fake.

A knife to the heart! But then I did the requisite Googling and realized that she’s not alone. Fake reading is such a phenomenon that teachers have whole Pinterest boards dedicated to it.

The cornerstone of a fake reading Pinterest board is the Anchor Chart, which, I’ve since learned, is a learning tool used by teachers to “anchor” their students’ thinking around a particular task, activity, or behavior  — in this case, real reading vs. fake reading.

Some common signs of fake readers include:

  • finishing a book too quickly
  • abandoning books
  • fidgeting or talking instead of reading
  • skimming words
  • picture reading
  • turning pages too quickly
  • recognizing or sounding out words but not understanding the text
  • not being able to talk about the book

The thing is, fake readers can actually come off as little bookworms — mine sure did. They want to engage with book — or at least appear like they’re engaged. In class, they can readily offer their interpretation, usually by repeating what they’ve already heard. They know what it looks like to be a real reader. They’re just not really reading.

Real readers, on the other hand:

  • pay attention while reading
  • read every word
  • are quiet
  • are sitting still
  • show emotions while reading
  • may not be the fastest, but follow along at a steady pace with a bookmark or finger
  • are able to explain different aspects of the book, like the plot or key characters

While my daughter had mastered the postures of reading — literal (lying on her bed, nose in book) and figurative (“Roald Dahl is my favorite!” “The BFG is the best book EVER.”) — and loved to talk about her love for Roald Dahl and how many books she was going to read, it wasn’t until I slowed her way, way down, and peppered her with questions, that I felt like anything related to comprehension was settling in. This wasn’t pleasure reading, as I had imagined it. It was work. But it was — and is — totally worth it.

Later on, say, in middle school, fake reading takes on a different, more problematic sheen. Fake readers become good at “the game of school,” as educator Cris Tovani, author of I Read It, But I Don’t Get It, puts it. They glean details from group conversations, and are smart about the facts and details that are likely to show up on a test. Fake readers can be A and B students, they can decode texts well enough to muddle through their turn at reading aloud, they can be fourth and fifth graders who are testing well, and who, by all accounts and purposes, seem to be reading just fine. But they’re not.

It’s not easy spotting a fake — not if you’re a busy mom with all of 90 minutes a day in which to cram in dinner, homework, and “quality time,” nor if you’re a maxed-out teacher. But it’s crucial that we do. I’m trying to slow the world down so that my daughter can grasp what makes a life with books so wonderful. Once that’s there, even the worst fake-reading offender can be reformed into a lifelong reader, even — and especially — when mom’s not watching.