In the first post in this series, I set out to make the case that public education has fallen into the trap of believing that it is possible to develop great readers (from the struggling readers we often serve) by focusing on reading instruction. Even when that focus actively crowds out the other half of literacy: independent reading.
While the drive to fix our problem (vis-a-vis low test scores) is understandable, the problem is that we know better. We know how growing into a strong reader works.
We have known for a long time that
- in order to become a proficient reader, you have to read a lot. Emerging readers need to read every day. It takes hundreds of books to become a great reader, not dozens.
- since being different from each other is a key part of being human, readers are interested in different books (from each other). Readers only get better when they read books that aren’t too easy or too hard. As reading ability develops, a reader is able to read increasingly difficult books comfortably. In order to provide students enough options to interest and challenge them, we need a lot of books.
- the best way to get a human to read that many books is to let her/him choose her/his own books because humans (particularly emerging readers) will only read lots of books if they find them interesting.
The facts are simple. We have to let students choose what they read and to do so they need both autonomy and options.
Unfortunately, in far too many cases, our zeal for ensuring student success has allowed us to violate these principles. We try to quantify and control the art of reading. By degrees, we strip the independence from independent reading. We find ways to put a rank and value on each book. We dictate how much and how often students read. We make reading into a pursuit of points. For many students, these practices conspire with the honest difficulty of school to make reading a chore to be first dreaded, then avoided, then abandoned at the first opportunity. Incidentally, it is worth considering the possibility that our fervor to stamp out illiteracy among the young is contributing directly to the precipitous rise of aliteracy in adults.
The reduction of literacy to a science has had another direct impact on our practice in public education. It has given rise to a climate in which books themselves have become dispensable to the process of developing strong readers. In an astonishing leap of logic, we have been perfectly content to abandon one of the cardinal rules of this process: ensuring students have access to enough books. We (most public schools) have stopped buying books at anything near an appropriate rate. Kelly Gallagher, noted speaker, advocate for effective literacy practice and author of several books including Readicide (a book that examines how schools are systematically killing the love of reading), suggests that students need not hundreds of books to chose from but thousands. He says that only an avalanche of books will do. But instead of fighting to ensure funding to sustain a school environment that has that many books available to students, we have decided to spend our precious resources elsewhere.
The problem with diverting funding away from book purchases is that the age of a school’s collection of books matters. Consider two more things we know:
- It is important for emerging readers to read both fiction and nonfiction. The recent conventional wisdom is that well more than half of reading should be nonfiction.
- Nonfiction ages faster than fiction. For example, Magic School Bus and Dr. Seuss books still appeal to young readers just fine. Books with topics like “When We Get to the Moon” and “Today’s Hottest NBA Stars: Magic Johnson and Larry Bird” were probably written later but no longer appeal to young readers.
The science of literacy has starved the art of literacy for resources. When students do not benefit from the emaciated book collections that exist as a result, that fact is taken as further proof that “recreational” reading is not essential to the process of developing as a reader but is a luxury in which those who are already proficient readers may indulge.
So the question is this: how is the balance in your school?
- Do students get to pick their own books for independent reading?
- If students are allowed to pick, do they have to follow certain rules (point/level restrictions)?
- Is your reading system really about scoring points or about reading?
- How many years in the last five has your school spent more money on books for independent reading than on either a reading program or a reading teacher?
- What’s the average age of the books your students have access to?
Do your students have an avalanche of books available to them and it is used to nurture a passion for reading? If we produce students who can read perfectly well but chose not to, we will have failed. Sadly, the statistics on adult aliteracy suggest that we have already made this mistake. Even more alarming is the fact that our strategy has done little to reduce the problem it was designed to solve. We have sacrificed a deep passion for reading in favor of reading “achievement” and have not accomplished even that.
Let’s find the balance that has been missing by tapping into an amazing resource we have always had.