Don't Kill the Reader!
In a moment of irony, we’re going to start this post with a pop quiz…
1. What’s one of the biggest precursors for success not only in school, but in life?
2. What’s an activity that students seem to either completely love or totally despise, depending on how it’s administered?
3. What is the term for students perusing graphic novels, comic books, and silly picture books full of fart jokes?
4. What do we call it when students choose books with inappropriate Lexile scores, either well above or below the student’s assumed ability to comprehend?
5. What subject—as opposed to, say, math—can be forever lost to the student by too much dissection, too early?
Extra Credit: What’s THE terminal objective for having kids read in school?
Extra Credit: Instill in them a lifelong love of reading*. Nothing more. Nothing less.
*NOTE: As used here, we’re referring to the common practice of sitting down with a book—fiction or otherwise, classic or contemporary—and simply reading it for enjoyment and edification. Yes, a math or history lesson requires reading, and analysis and testing of the material presented is an important part of the lesson, but the main point of reading a math lesson has little to do with enjoying the actual words in the textbook.
Nowhere in the common definition of “reading” is there anything about memorizing and regurgitating sections of the book in question. Nor anything about analyzing and dissecting the work in question to ascertain “greater” meaning than that contained within the words on the page. Nothing about using reading as prep for a test on the very same reading, either—a cart-before-the-horse exercise wherein the results of the test end up more important than the actual reading of the book.
So why do we do this? I think it largely comes from a well-intentioned desire to apply metrics to the subject. And for the more Boolean, STEM-centric subjects, yes, we often need to quantify results to measure progress. So we tend to think we need to create a methodology to dissect, measure, and test all subject matter.
But for the more right-brained subjects, applying this mindset often does more harm than good. (One of the banes of my corporate existence was the oft-repeated dictum, “If you can’t put numbers around it, it doesn’t exist.” Hint: people who say this might make good accountants but are almost universally poor supervisors.)
So, what should we do? I humbly offer three strategies:
1. Start with the Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm. The first goal of any reading program should be that the student ends up with a love of reading such that they will continue the habit going forward. If that’s all that happens, that’s a wonderful success. But if the student ends up with a correlation in their brain between “reading” and “work,” then—regardless of all the curriculum objectives you’ve met on paper—the program is a total failure for that student. (Similar to sports programs that use running laps as punishment. Way to go, coach—you’ve just created a life-long negative association with one of the healthiest activities a person can engage in: aerobic exercise…)
2. Be mindful of selection criteria. You’ve probably seen the recent (and infamous) “recommended reading list” from Florida’s Dept. of Education that’s almost entirely comprised of books written before I was born, let alone the students. (Imagine a list for middle graders—put out in 2019!—that starts with Black Beauty, Heidi, The Secret Garden, The Velveteen Rabbit, The Wind in the Willows, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and Anne of Green Gables. And I didn’t cherry-pick these… they’re simply the first seven titles on the list. The rest are more of the same. Who in the world thought today’s tweens might relate to those?) The same issues come with using big awards as selection criteria. (A famous report on the past 30 years of children’s literature says, “The Newbery has probably done far more to turn kids off to reading than any other award in children’s publishing.”) Remember, the first objective isn’t to introduce the students to “the brilliance of the classics,” it’s to get them to love reading. Which means they need to actually enjoy what they read, especially for the first few years of independent reading. Toward that end…
3. Let the kids pick their reading material. Obviously there needs to be assigned reading at times (but even then, please try to select something the kids might actually enjoy reading!), but it’s hard to over-stress the importance of actually letting the students select their own books—on their own—without “guidance” or “Lexile scoring” or “recommendations” (unasked-for) or any other type of thumbing the scale. If they ask for recommendations, then yes! This is where great librarians and teachers shine—they can pair up a student with a book in a way that seems almost like magic to an outsider (when it’s mostly deep knowledge of the material—including current books—paired with a deep love of books and reading, along with serious time and effort on their part). But one of the keys to developing a love of reading is the feeling of autonomy a student gets when they choose a book that they think might actually interest them (as opposed to their teacher), make the effort to read it, and end up actually liking it (both validating their choice and providing motivation to try the process again… win-win!).
Speaking of the primacy of student choice, Penny Kittle—in Book Love, her book on getting students to love both reading and writing—says, “Allowing students to make choices about what they read has been presented in our profession, especially at the secondary level, as enrichment—something to do once the hard work is over. I believe, instead, that it is at the center of our work.” And, “I believe all students need to own their reading in the same way I believe they must own their writing.”
For many kids, reading enjoyment seems to peak in mid-late elementary grades then fall off somewhere in those tween middle school years… and sometimes never recovers. (And in schools where this doesn’t seem as prevalent, I’ve noticed they usually have deeply engaged librarians and language arts teachers.) In my own informal polling of young people, “They made us read crappy books!” and “They made it into work!” were two of the top reasons why this happens, along with basically being “too busy” for pleasure reading.
The busy-ness aspect is a separate subject, but if we take care of the first two issues and they actually learn to enjoy reading—and writing—then they’re more likely to stick with it even when life gets a little hectic.
Going back to the opening question (what’s one of the biggest precursors for success…?), pleasure reading actually has to do with a lot more than pleasure. So helping our kiddos develop a love of reading is beneficial to them well beyond the language arts arena, and well beyond school itself.
Happy writing… and reading!
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.