Monday, October 7, 2013

How not to teach kids to love reading

I'll be blunt: Melissa's post at Scuffed Slippers and Wormy Books about children's reading scores and their according recommended books made me furious. It's not just another story of someone doing something predictably stupid when it comes to books. It's not even like book banning, which is ridiculous on a thousand different levels. Melissa's story about teachers assigning books to students only according to a computerized test (this Lexile nonsense, whatever it may be) and refusing to accept books that have lower scores is enraging. And it's set me so utterly over the edge not only because it's stupid, but because I'm convinced that it will have a lasting harm on getting kids to read.

I'm not going to pretend I wasn't lucky when it comes to my love of reading. My parents frequently read with me as a child, and encouraged my reading all throughout my childhood. We were often in bookstores and libraries. My local libraries were very helpful and welcoming, with long lists of recommended books according to genre. My schools always had libraries packed with more books than I could ever read, some of which even went "beyond" the official grade levels. I was encouraged to read and explore from a very early age. Nobody ever tried to stop me, and so I didn't. I found the books I loved, those books led me to others, and from there... the rest is history.

When I was in fourth grade, we had an incentive project to read. If we read books in five different genres and wrote reports about them, we would get a small prize and a big colorful star put up on the wall. By year's end, only two had achieved stars (myself and a good friend of mine), but many others had read many books as well, having just eschewed the writing part or had neglected a certain genre. But the incentive worked, both in an effort to broaden our reading and simply to get us to open a book.

Two years later, again I found myself in a classroom that incentivized reading - here, if our parents signed off that we had read over a certain number of hours throughout the year, we would receive a bookstore gift card. Many of us won this prize, filling our lists with the books we wanted to read. Page count didn't matter. Speed didn't matter. Even the book itself, though written down, wasn't the point. What mattered was the fact that we spent time reading. So I, who read much faster than everyone else in the class, ended up having to read twice as many books to reach the same threshold. Did it matter? No. I enjoyed every minute of it. The incentive was major enough to be worth achieving, but minor enough that I read because I wanted to read, not because anyone was forcing me to.

When a teacher (or a parent, or a librarian, or whatever) tells a kid to read, there's a weight and meaning that comes attached with it. I remember that wonderful Arthur episode where the kids have to write book reports. Buster admits to his friends that he's never completed a book in his life. Everyone is shocked, and their response is to throw at him easier and easier books. But Buster's unable to finish any of them. In the end (the night before the report is due) we see him reading a tiny picture book ("The sky is blue. The ocean is blue."), but he abandons this as well. Instead, he starts to read some version of Robin Hood, which Arthur had lent him saying it's for when you're a real reader. When Buster hands in his incomplete report, he realizes what the problem was - he was trying to read books that didn't interest him. And honestly, that's one of the best messages I've ever seen on television. Don't try to read what you don't like. Not as a kid. Not when you're supposed to be cultivating a love of reading.

Teachers who look only at numbers are failing their students. Plain and simple. Teachers who assign books based on a computerized analysis of the reading level without taking into account whatever other books this kid may have read and enjoyed are failing their students. Educators (and to a more minor degree parents) have a responsibility to their kids. Forcing children to read won't get you readers. Finding something they'll love and want to continue with themselves just might.


  1. Oh how I hate the computerized analysis of reading level. My sister had something similar when she was in school (it was a pilot program I think?), and Twilight had a much much higher reading level (and attending score for kids who read it) than The Color Purple. Because of vocabulary words used in each. Blech.

  2. Standardized anything is contrary to the spirit of education. Great post.

  3. It all seems to be about numbers these days. Quantity not quality. Computers are great but they can't make a reader. What about learning from the example set by those who are avid readers...


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