jimvanpelt (jimvanpelt) wrote,

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What is Happening to Reading?

I talked to Chris Ransick, the Denver Poet Laureate, when he was in town for some library talks last week.  He did a great presentation on 25 ways to get kids to read which included several good ones I'd never heard before.  Afterward, I was able to chat with him about the state of reading, and he said an interesting thing, that in his observations and from his talks with teachers, it seems that the demographic of reading is changing.  He thoght that there's about the same number of avid readers as always, and there's also about the same sized group of kids who won't read, no matter what, but the broad middle of kids who enjoyed reading occasionally when given the right book seems to be shrinking.
This observation is backed up by a recent article in The Washington Post, where they report the following:
At a time when more authors are writing more books for young people, fewer children are reading for pleasure. A recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts showed that the percentage of 13- to 17-year-olds who read daily for fun dropped from 31 percent to 22 percent between 1984 and 2004. The amount they read for school has not changed.

Some educators and authors say they believe the emphasis on standardized tests in the No Child Left Behind education law has made teachers less willing to experiment with new or unusual books. "Kids are getting less and less choice, and it's sad," said author Jon Scieszka, the U.S. National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, adding that his son once saw reading as only a school activity.

"He thought every book comes with a test," he said. "There is nothing sadder than making books only a school project. Reluctant readers don't want to be quizzed at the end of every chapter. They don't want to feel like they are stupid."

There is some commentary about this topic in the blogosphere.  One respondent at Dr. Prezz's excellent blog offered the following:

I have two elementary-aged sons who are required to read books in the Accelerated Reader program. My 4th grader loved to read until about 2nd grade, when AR seemed to take over our lives. Right now, his goal is 21 points for a 9 weeks, which is approximately 5 to 7 novels of 150 pages or so. My 1st grader has a goal of 17 points. At his reading level, all books are worth .5. That means he has to read and score 100% on at least 34 books. 34. In one nine weeks.

Even though I’m a HS English teacher, I believe that AR is wrong. Forcing kids to read so much in such a short time period is killing any love for reading they might have. My older son used to read for pleasure. Now I have to force him to read for AR. My younger son still likes to read. I’m only hoping that love will last. He’s just now starting to get into chapter books.

I agree with your comments about overanalyzing and overtesting in HS. However, if kids aren’t tested, how do you ensure all the kids read the books you assign? Most of my students wouldn’t read at all for pleasure. Many don’t read when it’s assigned.

Three of my children have come through District 51 schools.  All of them did Battle of the Books, and they are avid readers.  I think it's interesting, though, that none of them list as any of their favorite books a book that was assigned for a class.

I think teachers are caught in a bad accountability loop.  The emphasis of quantifiable results encourages them to create tests to show what they've taught.  So, a teacher will create a pretest for Huckleberry Finn that asks the kids what they know about slavery, for example.  Then the kids take a post test that will show how much they learned about slavery.  The teacher can then graph the results to show the book produced measurable improvement in knowledge of slavery.  This same approach can be applied to knowledge of character, understanding of theme, grasp of conflict, etc.  The book ends up being in the center of a flurry of measurable activity, including quizzes, graded discussions, journals, essays, etc.

There's a teacher in my department who is teaching a book to 10th graders I like a great deal, Something Wicked This Way Comes.  Oh, my gosh!  A wonderful book!   One of my favorite from my junior high years.  But she's taking six weeks to do it.  Six fracking weeks!  She's doling the book out in these ten page snippets, supplemented with activities and discussions and quizzes and accountability.  Could I design a more effective way than that to make a student hate a book?

Some teachers do a better job than others in making this work enjoyable, but the emphasis is never on "this is a fun book."  It's always on, "this is a teaching tool."  And tools just aren't fun.

Are teachers and the schools contributing to the decline in recreational reading?  Is it possible that an increased emphasis on standardized tests has created an atmosphere where teachers don't feel they can ask kids to read just for the sake of reading?  What ways are teachers using reading in the classroom that doesn't make it all about testing or evaluation?  What strategies are we employing at all levels to show kids that reading is fun?

Tags: reading, teaching

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