Stop trying to make your kids read… Really.
Many practices in place in school today may lead to short term results for students, but what both the research and common sense tells us is that our schools are producing very few adults who love to read. In Donalyn Miller’s great book “The Book Whisperer” she cites a 2007 AP study that reported that the average adult in the U.S. read 4 books in a year. 25% of those adults read no books at all. While those statistics weren’t necessarily shocking to me, what was shocking was that when teachers were surveyed, the reported levels of reading and enthusiasm for reading were no higher than for the general population. She cites a 2004 study that surveyed college students studying to be teachers and found that a majority (54%) admitted that they were not enthusiastic about reading. Let that sink in for a moment. A majority of those future teachers, who are likely teaching many of our kids now, are not enthusiastic about reading. If those are the role models in our classrooms, is it any wonder our kids aren’t falling in love with reading?
As we seek to improve reading scores in our testing heavy school environment, we must not forget that students’ enjoyment of reading matters as well. As another of my reading heroes, Maria Walther challenges in her book, “Month by Month Reading Instruction for the differentiated classroom K-2” “What is the point of teaching a child to read if they will never pick up a book again?” When I first read that quote, it was a two by four that hit me right between the eyes and has stuck with me. We need to look carefully at the practices in our schools and the messages they are giving to our kids. If you were to check the mission statement of almost any school, it would include something about making kids “life long learners.” As we throw that term around again and again until it has almost no meaning, do we really think about what it means? What practices will lead to students wanting to learn or read outside of school? What will our kids do if they have a choice? If a student will pick up a book when there is no pizza to be earned, book report to write, points or grades to earn, or log to fill out, we will know we have done our job.
What practices inspire long term love of reading? Which ones focus on control, compliance, and short term results ultimately sending the message that reading is an activity that is inherently not enjoyable?
Here is my quick brainstorm (with much credit to Donalyn and The Book Whisperer, which confirmed and encouraged many of my own beliefs about good reading instruction)
1. Be a reader yourself
We simply can’t give to students what we do not possess. As you finish a book, talk to students about it. It will quickly become the most popular book in your classroom library. We need to be experts on the latest and greatest in literature for our students. I have started as a 4th/5th principal with many of the books on the Newberry list and on the Bluestem list (3rd-5th reader’s choice award in IL). My favorites get posted on a bulletin board outside the office and I try to engage students about what they are reading as often as possible.
2. Match students with books/give them choice
I don’t know of a more powerful strategy for guiding readers than putting the right book in their hands. Imagine if all the money spent on student workbooks tomorrow was applied towards building classroom libraries with the latest and greatest in children’s literature. We need to shower our kids with great books. Most students who struggle simply don’t know how to find books they find interesting and readable. As educators and parents, we must actively seek to put the best books into their hands. No one will like reading if they have a book that they find to be boring or too difficult. In Maria’s book, she calls it, “Have I got a book for you!” She writes a personalized note to a student about why she thinks they will like a book and then places it on their desk.
3. Give students time
If we look closely at what we do during language arts classes, how much time is spent actively engaged in reading? Much of what we do is focused on building background knowledge or doing extension activities that have little to do with growing as a reader. It is easier said than done, but we don’t need a research article to know that the more time kids spend reading, the better they will become at it. Our actions speak louder than our words. If we don’t devote any time to it, we can’t say it is a priority.
Controlling readers/Short term results:
1. Book logs
If we require nightly reading and hold students accountable via a parent signature, kids will read right? Maybe. Does it inspire kids to read? I doubt it. Is is a reliable indicator of whether students are reading? I doubt that too. It is most likely a gauge of who can get their parents to sign something and bring it back to school.
2. Accelerated Reader (A.R.)
Although the main supposed benefit is ease of use and convenience for teachers, I would argue that A.R. is also not a good indicator of what students are reading or their comprehension. Have you looked over a kid’s shoulder lately when the take one of those tests? I have. It will ask kids for inconsequential details of a story that a good reader would filter out. In addition, it restricts kids’ reading choices to those books that have tests or are at their specific level while putting kids’ focus on accumulating points rather than enjoying reading. It also funnels precious funds away from getting good reading materials to another company more interested in making a profit than benefiting kids.
3. Reading rewards and incentives
Although I appreciate those companies who provide incentives for students to read in the spirit that they are offered, I worry about the underlying message that those rewards send. Whether it be a free pizza, amusement park tickets, etc, we may be sending the message that reading isn’t fun or enjoyable in and of itself. A teacher in my building was approached at the beginning of the year by a 4th grader who basically wanted to know how he was going to be paid to read this year… How did we get there with that kid? How likely do you think he is to read once he is no longer being “paid?”
Q: But Joey, how will we know if our kids are reading without a program like A.R. or keeping a reading log?
A: How does a basketball coach know which kids spend hours at home practicing dribbling and shooting? They can see the result on the court. A teacher worth their salt knows if their kids read. They don’t need an expensive computer program or signed log to know which kids are readers. They talk to their kids about what they are reading. They see how they are progressing in their skills as a reader.
I was blessed to be raised by two readers. I can remember many Saturday mornings going with my mom to our local library where she and I checked out books and I spent some time reading. At the time, she was mostly reading crime and mystery. The first books I can remember really loving were the “choose your own adventure” books (they totally need a comeback). I then got into fantasy reading the Lord of the Rings series and everything I could get by Terry Brooks. My Dad spent a lot of time reading Louis L’Amour or anything else set in the old west. We were a family of readers.
How can we create a family of readers at school or in our home that will inspire kids to be readers when all the carrots and sticks are taken away? How are you inspiring kids to love reading in your classroom or home? As always, please share a great idea with me!