Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Becoming A Reader: The Politics and the Reality

Every Tuesday The Albuquerque Journal, our local independent newspaper, features a "Schools" section on the front of Section B. One of the regular features is a syndicated column called A+ Advice for Parents, in which the columnist, Leanna Landsmann, dispenses advice to parents about various educational issues in response to questions posed by readers.

Being somewhat cynical about public education, I sometimes wonder if the questions are staged, but whether or not they are, the advice dispensed is definitely inside the envelope of educational culture. Parents are cast as the problem, and the educational experts know exactly how to solve them.

Today's column was no exception to educational politics as usual. The question, supposedly posed by a teacher, reads thus:

"Our children are falling behind in reading, and many parents are clueless...A mother asked me what kind of video game to buy her son for Christmas that would help him read better, I suggested she buy him books. Her response? 'But he doesn't like to read.' Parents need to get smarter about this crisis..."

The columnist addresses the question by citing a recently released study by The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA--not the teacher's union), called To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequences. The findings discussed in A+ Advice for Parents in the paper include the following:

  • less than 50% of children under 5 are read to by family members (actual number not given)
  • the number of books in the home is a "significant predictor of academic achievement
  • Children and teens who read for pleasure daily or weekly score higher on reading tests

My reaction to reading these extremely original findings was something along the lines of "Well, duh!" In science we call these 'No Sh-- Sherlock' finding. The findings are not what intrigued me about the article. They are predictable, as are quotes from the NEA spokeswoman who, when she wasn't moaning "ain't it aweful" was busy telling us what parents "should" do. To wit:

"Our study points out several alarming national trends, yet we hope it makes a strong case for why parents should make reading for pleasure part of a family's life."

Well, duh.

What interested me about the article and the study was what they didn't address. In the question at the beginning of the article, we are told that teacher says that a parent says that a student "doesn't like to read."

The obvious question is, 'Why don't kids like to read?'

Neither the columnist nor the NEA study address that question. Oh, the usual culprits are trotted out and blamed: Television, video games, iPhones, computers. And yet to use most of this technology, a person has to be able to read. And of course, parents are targeted. School people would have you believe that it is all the parent's fault. They do it to their kids and then the poor schools have to pick up the pieces.

But let's ask some questions that take us beyond educational finger-pointing as usual.

What is it that makes people "readers", anyway? Here the study gives us information that has been known for a long time. The answer does partly lie in the home. Kids who grow up with parents who read, and who read to them, in homes with a plethora of books, are kids who grow up to be readers.

But this information just begs the question: Why aren't the parents readers? Why don't they read to their kids? Why are there fewer books in American homes?

Could it be that the parents don't like to read either? If this is so, we are merely pushing the question back a generation.

I do not have study results on this question of why people who can read don't like to read. But I have a suggestion. Love of reading comes from the experience of pleasure in reading and the pleasure in finding things out. Yes, it's circular to some extent. It's one of those maddening 'which came first, the chicken or the egg' type of questions.

As John Taylor Gotto points out in an essay in A Different Kind of Teacher, the people of the United States once were "readers." Even during colonial times, when a hefty percentage of the people were indentured servants, the literacy rate was high, and books were eagerly passed from hand to hand. And these books were not Dr. Seuss (no insult intended). They were hefty books with complex language. Books like the King James Bible, Shakespeare's plays and sonnets, John Bunyan's A Pilgrim's Progress. Hard books. Books that have long sentences with subordinate clauses, flowery verbal imagery, and impressive vocabulary. The average American was a "reader." As DeToqueville pointed out in Democracy in America, (published in the first half of the 19th century), the average American farmer or worker, read more than most members of the European landed gentry.

So what happened? Why do schoolchildren today, and their parents, forgo the pleasure of reading? Why don't they like to read?

I have an hypothesis. I think that school has become the problem. And that the problem is two-fold with origins in reading instruction and in the creeping conquest of family life due to school policy.

When I say that reading instruction is a problem, I am not talking about the reading wars. I refuse to fight the phonics v. whole language reading instruction battle. Both are needed, and both are important. To read well, a child needs to be exposed to the rich and imaginative use of the English language (for more on this see E.D. Hirsch's explanation of 'the Matthew effect' in The Schools we Need or check it our here--just scroll down to number 3, Education). Most kids also need some instruction in phonics. However, if reading instruction never gets beyond phonics worksheets and inane copy, if it never acquaints the child with good books, the child will not enjoy reading. For many kids, as Hirsch points out, "reading" means being forced to fill out endless vocabulary lists, spelling tests, and book reports while good books remain on the shelves at the periphery of the classroom. As I have said before, it is like making a kid who wants to learn to ride a bike fill out worksheets detailing the parts of the bike, giving them spelling tests to see if they can spell "pedal" and "brake" correctly, and having them memorize all three hundred and fifty-two separate steps that go into riding a bike (just kidding--I don't know how many steps there are), but never once getting the kid on the bike and running along side them!

If a person learns to love reading by getting pleasure out of reading, this reductionist methodology is never going to make "readers." And yet, this has become the methodology for kids who may not be reading "on schedule." They are deprived of recess, the fun stuff about reading, and dragged off the "drill and kill" remediation.

The other problem, and in my mind, perhaps far more important is the school policy take-over of family life after school hours. There has been numerous, well-designed studies done over the past 100 years that demonstrate that busy work assignments (read homework) do not appear to improve educational outcomes over the years of a child's education. What is it that actually improves outcomes? Number one: time spend conversing with parents. Remember all those studies that show that family dinners are important? Number two: time spent reading with parents. They mean actually reading, here, not making a diorama out of shoebox about reading. But what has happened? Students receive more and more thoughtless and useless busy-work assignments as homework, because the schools are preoccupied with testing, and shunt actual instruction to the parents for after-school hours. And there goes time for reading for pleasure at home.

My guess is that the parents of young children today do not like to read for the same reasons that their kids don't like to read. And the answer isn't to shake a finger at these parents and tell them that when their kids are done with 3-4 hours of homework a night, then they should read with them. Replace the busy-work with...nothing. Let the parents determine how they will spend time with their kids. Return the power to the family.

Of course, I am preaching to the choir here. Homeschoolers have not waited for the schools to return power to the family. They have taken their power back.

And I have yet to meet homeschooled kids who do not like to read. They may learn to read early or late. But all of them appear to like books and like the idea of reading.

What's that, N? Oh, gotta go! The Dangerous Book for Boys is calling.


Headmistress, zookeeper said...

Excellent points. Our local school district has taken to 'assigning' parents the job of having their young children read to them each night. But the school district assigns the book. And it's the same book every night for many nights in a row. And it's a stupid book that makes Dr. Seuss look like high culture. The children 'read' it until they memorize it, and then they have to keep on 'reading' it every night and their parents have to check off that they have done this.

No wonder parents and children hate reading together in this case. Only a few parents seem to have the intestinal fortitude and common sense to check off the list and subsitute their own books.

Another thing- I remember being told in school that what happened at school was not my parents' business, that children had to become their own people independent of our parents and so we didn't need to bother to tell them what was going on, and we should nto ask for help with, say, math homework since they could not understand the New Math anyway.
I wonder how many uninvolved parents learned that lesson when they were students?

Anonymous said...

Leanna Landsmann is a friend of mine, and I've been quoted in her column. So I can say from first-hand experience that her questions and answers aren't staged. And given that she recently quoted me saying something to the effect of "the days of sending your kids to school and assuming everything will be fine are over." So much for answers "inside the envelope of educational culture."

I'm a (lapsed) teacher and have to agree with you about the poor state of reading--oops, I meant literacy--instruction in our schools. Mind-numbing, repetitious "minilessons" that get us further and further from the love of reading you describe.

ChristineMM said...

Great posting.

I have been thinking about this topic since that report came out. I have so much to say I have not taken the time to blog it, to filter everything I have to say, to narrow it down, etc. Sometimes when a subject is near and dear to our hearts and we have a lot of opinions on it, those are the toughest subjects to write about.

Thanks to friends of mine who have children in school I am hearing that the way kids are learning to read and do their 'reading practice' is not at all how I learned in the 1970s.

Once beyond the basics and able to sound out words, they are thrown to just 'read' using the hundreds of books in the classroom's own library. According to my friend who has been battling her school, in the third grade class the books range from very easy readers such as for Kindergarteners to those at a fourth grade reading level. Additionally in that class many of the books are what she would call twaddle or others may call cr-p books.

She likes to tell a story that a friend of hers who thinks their girl is gifted and will become an M.D. some day, is spending her time in 3rd grade repeatedly reading "Arthur" picture books to herself.

The teacher said they do not have a 'reading plan'. They just let the children select their own books.

The mother then spent over $300 buying what she considers to be 'great' books for the classroom so there was something other than twaddle in there.

One other thing, the reading aloud being done in the class by the teacher was super easy stuff that the children could read to themselves. Back when her child was in first grade she was being read aloud to, Junie B Jones books. The mom asked the teacher, why are you not reading aloud books on a higher level that the children can't read to themselves?

And have you seen the Scholastic fliers the school kids get? There is some real junk on those order lists. Additionally the books are all jumbled up from K through grade 6 with no indicators as to what level the book is for and barely what the content is. Another friend showed me the list and her DD had circled books based on the pretty covers. Friend asked me what I thought of them. I said, "I've never heard of these let's read some Amazon reviews." Many were 'problem novels' for 6th grade and up, loaded with depressing stuff like divorce, suicide and other problems.

Maybe the old reader textbooks with levels that had readers progressing along at a steady forward pace were actually superior to just throwing picture books and easy reades, and light chapter books (i.e. Magic Tree House) at children and telling them to 'go read a book'.

And lest anyone think these classes are lacking for books, at the end of the year teachers throw them in the TRASH and some donate them to the public library book sales (I know as I've seen the classroom label on them when I see them at the sales).

Anyhow both of my friends who are a bit worried of how they are teaching reading also wonder if giving children only twaddle, boring stories, stupid books, or books that lack interest to the reader actually CONTRIBUTES to the issue of children not being interested in reading.

ChristineMM said...

Oh something else. A family who just began homeschooling said in their town their son was being forced to read the same book every year. He read "Because of Winn Dixie" in 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade. They also dragged it out to one chapter a week. Lastly they 'made a lesson' out of everything they read, thereby taking the pure pleasure of reading for readings sake out of it.

Also this notion of having reading practice time in grades 1-4 and just letting them select their own books without any guidacne hardly seems like teaching to me. Kids need prodding to have a bit of practice to read books at a harder level sometimes. But that mindset of letting them pick their own books is the notion of "reading anything is good, so long as they read SOMETHING they are better off than reading NOTHING". I disagree as to me reading boring books or twaddle makes the learner resist the tedium or the annoyance of reading stinky books, or ones that insult the readers intelligence because they are too dumbed down.

momof3feistykids said...

When my daughter was in public school, teachers were careful not to let kids read books that were too challenging. I guess they didn't want the kids to get discouraged. So they force fed them a steady diet of "twaddle" and actually -- on occasion --forebade them to read harder and more interesting books. It is not much of an incentive to become a reader.

Amie said...

Great post! We used to belong to a young marrieds group at church and one year we were asked what we liked to read. As we went around the circle, almost everybody said they didn't read/didn't have time to read or mentioned a magazine they read. I was unpleasantly surprised.

I was wondering if that red books was The Dangerous Book for Boys. I got that for our boys for Christmas. Can't wait to see whats in it!

Mama Squirrel said...

Great post as usual--I'll link.

Anonymous said...

Love this post and this is something I have witnessed first hand. My oldest went to half of second grade in public school and my youngest to half of K. Oldest learned to read in public school and 2 years later is still skeptical of her skills in reading because she was forced to read only certain colored dots. Nothing harder, nothing easier even if those topics peaked her attention. Where as, my youngest was taught to read at home. She has never been hindered with colored dots or whether or not something is too hard or too easy. She just simply reads. Now in 2nd grade herself she has a voracious appettite and reads chapter books, little books, big books, whatever. Her reading list literally triples that of my oldest. My oldest is coming around though, it has just taken a lot of patience to sit back and let her gain her confidence.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Wow. This is clearly a subject of some passion.

Headmistress/Zookeeper (I love that title--a mentor of mine in Jewish education once began a course with the statement: Welcome to the gorilla habitat): When I was in school, we were read to everyday after lunch through grade 8. Some books that I remember were: Little House in the Big Woods (1), The Saturdays (2), Caddie Woodlawn (3), Treasure Island (4), The Witch of Blackbird Pond (5), The Hobbit(6), A Christmas Carol (7), and The Fellowship of the Ring (8). We never discussed these books formally, no lessons were made from them, the teachers just dimmed the lights and read a chapter or two a day. Some of them were books I had already read, some are books I would not have thought of reading on my own, but have read them since. But there is magic in being read to, especially when the books are more complex than one might ordinarily read at that age. (I was unusual, a "reader" at an early age). I remember the feel of the classroom, the pleasure of imaginary journeys to other places and times, and the soothing sound of the teacher's voice.
That is why I am so passionate about giving children these experiences. Worksheets and knowing what dipthong is do not a reader make! Fact is, I have numerous graduate degrees and I have been a "reader" since I was 4 and I didn't know the formal definition of a dipthong until quite recently.

Anonymous: I am glad to hear that the questions are not made up on one level, but that they are not also makes me sad for lack of critical scholarship among my fellow educators. The question I quoted drips with unstated assumptions about who is responsible for problems with reading--assumptions that go beyond what I wrote. It also does not get to the (obvious) question of why people no longer enjoy reading. The answer is probably multifaceted, but the question ought to be asked. And, being a gadfly, I do have my own opinion on what is going on. And as a former teacher, I have my own experiences and opinions about the educational establishment. In general, I do not admire it. There is a level of officiousness and know-it-all-ism combined with a lack of real knowledge and critical skills among many 'educationists' that makes me truly angry.

Christinemm: I can attest to what goes on at both the elementary level and the secondary level when it comes to language instruction in schools. The best instruction I saw was at a private school, but even those kids, who had been through the reading wars of the late '80's were better decoders than comprehenders.
I do not want to get into the "twaddle" wars, too much, but I do agree that my best teachers (and my mom) urged me to read more and more complex books that I might not have ferreted out on my own. Finally, I have talked to a lot of scientists--some who are very well known in their fields--who spent their adolescent years reading science fiction and Marvel Comic Books, which the classicists probably also label twaddle. But then scientists are rarely classicists.

Amie: And here I thought that church people would be reading the beautiful English of the KJV or the RSV of the Bible! I am unpleasantly suprised as well!
The red book was indeed the Dangerous Book for Boys. My sister sent it for N. for Hannukah. N. has been reading selected passages to us, and it reminds me in some ways of the 1912 version of the Girl Scout Handbook--except addressed to boys. It is quite fascinating and funny!

Momof3: I think the problem with force-feeding kids certain books comes the idea that would require another post to really dissect, it is the idea that all kids ought to be at the same reading level at the same time. My son, who was interested in lizards and radio telescopes, and not interested in kid novels, was not allowed to check out more than one fiction book a month from the school library. We just taught him the fine art of subterfuge by telling him to dutifully bring the fiction books home. Our own weekly trips to the public library were his true source of reading material.

Mama Squirrel: Thanks! And congrats on your HSBA win!

Gem said...

Our oldest daughter, now 9, hated reading when she first learned around age 6. Had she been in school, she would have been forced to read anyway; I imagine she would have ended up still hating to read. She finally started to enjoy it last year and would read anything she could get her hands on. This year we put the girls in a very stringent charter school. Not only was she up to grade-level, she was wanting to read books (and had already read books in the series) that were on the 'older kids' shelves. The librarian wouldn't let her check them out on her word alone, she had to have a note from home. Sheesh!

Swylv said...

I couldn't have said it better myself. What a great way to phrase it.

JacciM said...

Excellent post. Thanking Mama S for the link :)

I've had a good bit of frustration lately with our public library as well. They recently printed out bookmarks with recommendations for each grade from first through sixth. Nine out of the ten books on each bookmark were completely kiddie pop culture books (cartoon-based, movie-based, etc.) One book on each one was at least a book I had heard of and could recognize as being a fairly decent choice. Of all the bookmarks, only two grade levels contained Newberry books and NONE included a single book written before the mid-1900s.

I guess I had hoped that librarians would somehow fill a need that wasn't being met by the public school systems. Silly me.

I will say, though, that there seems to be one or two Reading Lone Rangers on the library staff. I'm seeing more and more of the display books reflecting a desire to promote truly quality books. A Coville picture book retelling of The Winter's Tale, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Poetry for Young People series, Where the Red Fern Grows, Treasure Island, and others. That's encouraging, and I was glad to be able to share my delight with the librarian on staff that day.

Magpie Ima said...

Another great, thought-provoking post and I think you are right on all counts. One other *huge* factor in the decline of reading, I believe, is the quick and mindless entertainment provided by TV and video games. My boys are huge readers but will always put a book aside for the lure of video games, sad to say. Which is precisely why we limit computer access in our house.