Last week a reporter contacted me. She wanted to know why we should encourage kids to read. Some of you might know that I am skeptical about a lot of the claims about reading. I certainly accept that idea that kids learn from reading (introspection alone should tell you that), but how much reading practice it takes to improve reading achievement is not exactly clear. Given that, I'm not exactly the poster boy for those who claim to be improving reading by getting kids to engage in it.
Nevertheless, I'm not against encouraging kids to read. Actually, I'm for it. The thoughts below might help you to think about why we want kids to read.
I know a lot more about how to make someone a reader than about the consequences of reading. Part of this is a problem of not being able to do experiments on this subject (one couldn't very well constrain people from reading in a control group), so for the most part we are left to correlational studies that show a higher likelihood of certain outcomes for certain kinds of people (in this case, any differences between readers and non-readers would show a correlation) or we draw from more incidental insights, such as anecdotes or reviews of people's diaries.
Some studies have shown that there is a lot more mental activity going on when someone is reading than when they are watching television. Research isn't very clear on the effects of brain exercise, but there is wide belief in the field that mental activity is a good thing, and reading certainly gets the synapses going. I just heard a physician explaining how reading (and other good mental activity) can help delay the symptoms of dementia; of course, with kids we don't think about dementia (though it is rare that someone who didn’t like reading as a child becomes a big reader later, so the earlier you start, the healthier your brain is likely to be in the long run).
There is a lot of correlational research suggesting that people who read have much bigger vocabularies and know more information about their world, and both of those can have payoffs in later life (better academic success, more income, etc.), and, again, people who know more, read more, go to school more end up with healthier lives (whether this is due to those activities themselves or to what proficiency in those activities means to incomes is unknown). Boys often like to read about real stuff (not stories), and there are clear knowledge benefits to reading science, sports, history, etc.
A lot of reading, especially for older children, is aspirational. Kids start to wonder what kinds of people they are going to want to be, and being able to closely read about the accomplishments and interior life of others can be a real boon. (For instance, I grew up in a family in which no one had more than a high school education. I decided while reading books that I was going to college). Kids often select role models and careers based on what they read. So biographies, autobiographies, and fiction with strong positive characters are great reading choices for 'tweens.
Many people use reading as a form of escape, particularly when their emotional worlds are closing in on them. I know many women who are overwhelmed by the demands of their jobs, their husband, their kids, etc. They don't read for intellectual stimulation (if anything they feel over stimulated), but they read to get away from all of the demands. Children like this kind of escape as well (getting to someplace different, with different people). Reading can have a tranquilizing effect. I usually read before going to sleep at night. It allows me to stop my mind from racing and to get away from myself for a few moments which allows me to relax and sleep well. Any kind of text that is of topical interest to the reader is great for this.
While some people use literacy as a way of shutting down external chaos and to get away from it all, others use it to connect socially. The most immediate examples of that are when individuals share a book and discuss it. Books can become the links among people (in book clubs, for instance). Many people enjoy baseball because it connects them to certain people who they associate with baseball; so if your father took you to games as a girl, you would be more likely to go to games now (even if you really don't care that much about baseball itself). Families that read and write together and who make books the center of some of their connections and conversations will love reading because it seems responsible for the relationships. So, reading books together is a great idea -- or reading texts that have strong author voices, another kind of interpersonal connection.
Reading is a great opportunity to imagine. This might refer to reading a Stephen King novel (in which case people are reading to scare themselves, which apparently fosters a sense of how bad things could be and how much in control we really are) or to imagining places far away or the kinds of lives that we would want to have (like wanting a happy family life when none is evident).
Reading is inspirational. It can put us in touch with God, beauty, truth, wisdom, or joy. It can give us hope and can empower us to change ourselves, to change our world, or to simply wonder.
There is a book out there for everyone.
Thursday, September 23, 2010
Last week a reporter contacted me. She wanted to know why we should encourage kids to read. Some of you might know that I am skeptical about a lot of the claims about reading. I certainly accept that idea that kids learn from reading (introspection alone should tell you that), but how much reading practice it takes to improve reading achievement is not exactly clear. Given that, I'm not exactly the poster boy for those who claim to be improving reading by getting kids to engage in it.
Friday, June 18, 2010
As I've written here before, I serve on the Board of Directors of Reach Out and Read, one of the most valuable reading promoters in the world. This summer they have launched a campaign to give a brand-new, age-appropriate book to one million children in need before Labor Day. The Summer of a Million Books campaign unites Reach Out and Read pediatricians and family physicians at 4,500 hospitals and clinics across the country in their mission to prepare America’s youngest children to succeed in school. And you can help.
Reach Out and Read developed the Summer of a Million Books in conjunction with the United We Serve: Let’s Read. Let’s Move. initiative, which aims to promote community service and combat illiteracy and childhood obesity. Reach Out and Read is a national partner of Let’s Read. Let’s Move., an Administration-wide effort led by First Lady Michelle Obama, the Corporation for National and Community Service, and five federal agencies.
Reach Out and Read targets children who are at greatest risk for school failure and illiteracy, and provides them with high quality children’s books and their parents with reading tips and guidance on the importance of reading aloud. Fourteen research studies confirm that Reach Out and Read works – families served by the program read together more often, and their children enter kindergarten better prepared to succeed, with larger vocabularies, stronger language skills, and a six-month developmental age over their peers.
The key to Reach Out and Read’s success is the messenger: pediatricians and family physicians. Participating doctors and nurse practitioners incorporate the Reach Out and Read model into every regular checkup for children between 6 months of age and the time they enter kindergarten. Because 96% of U.S. children see their doctor at least once a year and because of the trust that parents have in their child’s doctor, the pediatric checkup is the ideal opportunity to promote early literacy and school readiness.
Last year, Reach Out and Read’s 26,500 participating medical providers served 3.9 million children and families at 4,500 hospitals, clinics, and pediatric practices nationwide.
If it succeeds, the Summer of a Million Books campaign will provide one million families with the tools and the guidance they need to prepare their children to succeed in school. In order to accomplish that goal, Reach Out and Read’s doctors and nurse practitioners must distribute more than 18,500 books every day between Monday, June 21 (First Day of Summer), and Monday, September 6 (Labor Day).
Reach Out and Read is asking for all Americans to join the campaign and help ensure that every child arrives at kindergarten ready to read and prepared to excel.
How can you help?
1. Donate a book or sponsor a child online through Reach Out and Read's Virtual Book Drive.
2. Organize a book drive for the Reach Out and Read Program in your community.
3. Most importantly, read to the children in your life every day.
Friday, May 29, 2009
This is the time of the year when schools often try to reach out to parents to encourage their kids to continue to read over the summer. Not a bad idea--reading is a lot of fun and keeping in practice can mean a faster start to next school year. Here are some suggestions for parents that you might want to pass on (or to use with your own kids)....
Summertime and the readin' is easy, fish are jumpin' and the cotton is high....
Another school year is coming to a close, but that shouldn’t mean that your kids can stop reading and writing. Research shows bad outcomes for kids who don’t read (their reading test scores actually decline). A summer away from school should not be a summer away from reading. Encourage your children (teens, too) to read over the summer. It’s one of the most loving things you can do for them!
Here are some suggestions that might help:
1. Summer usually allows families to spend more time together. This can be a great opportunity to read with your kids. Children can learn a lot from being read to, and it is a lot of fun, too. Even if they can read by themselves, take turns reading to each other, and be sure to talk about what you are reading. Ask questions, answer questions, explore the ideas together, but read.
2. As kids get older, help them find books, magazines, or newspaper articles that they would enjoy reading, and you read them, too (trips to the library together are a great idea for finding such material). Or read the same book they are reading for class over the summer so you can discuss it. The point is to share the reading experience.
3. Even if you are not reading the same books they are, talk to your children about what they are reading. Ask them questions such as what happened in the story or what might happen next, who is their favorite character, or who is the villain. This builds summarization and recall skills, and your interest can help increase their interest.
4. Create a summer reading nook or spot in your home. Make sure there is good light and comfortable seating and try to set aside one TV/video-game-free night per week for family reading. Reading night can be a special snack night, too. There is nothing better than reading with a big bowl of popcorn or cookies and milk.
5. If your children’s school program provides materials for home activities, absolutely use them.
6. If you are taking a trip this summer, send for brochures and maps and have your children read them aloud with you.
7. Don’t ignore the value of graphic novels or a popular book series like the Twilight books. These are great ways to encourage adolescents to read more. If you are having trouble finding books that your kids want to read try these resources from the International Reading Associations:
8. Whether you are reading to your children or they are reading themselves, plan an outcome event or activity based on the reading. For instance, if the book has been made into a movie, watch the DVD together after reading the book. Book reading can lead to picnics, museum and zoo visits, ballgames, or even family vacations (we took our kids to Chincoteague Island and Hannibal, Missouri as a result of reading Misty of Chincoteague and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer with them).
9. Write notes or letters to your children. What a great opportunity to remind them of experiences that they had when they were younger or to tell them about the lives of older people in the family, like their grandparents. Kids love getting letters and sometimes they’ll even write back.
10. Don’t just focus on storybooks. Kids often prefer to read about fact rather than fiction, including books and articles about the environment, animals, current events, sports, and other factual topics. Talk to them about what they like and help them find reading materials that match those interests.
Friday, January 30, 2009
The winter issue of The California Reader includes a spirited response by Glenn DeVoogd to an article that I published in that outlet this fall. Nothing wrong with differences of opinion, so I’ll not use this space to try to argue that I’m wrong and he’s right on those issues. However, I will address some egregious errors in his claims.
1. Glenn says the National Reading Panel (NRP) promoted “a more skills-based approach to reading rather than a meaning-based approach focusing on comprehension” (p. 5). In fact, NRP looked at 205 studies on the teaching of reading comprehension, all with reading comprehension as the outcome. NRP considered 45 studies on vocabulary teaching and 16 on oral reading fluency, all with comprehension outcomes. Even 18 of the 52 phonemic awareness studies and 35 of the 38 phonics studies focused on reading comprehension. Maybe the complaint isn’t that NRP failed to focus on comprehension outcomes, but that we dared to consider a broader set of outcomes (like spelling, fluency, and word recognition).
2. He also claims NRP “missed some well-designed studies supporting the use of” sustained silent reading (SSR), the Book Flood studies of Warwick Elley. NRP did not ignore those studies. It searched for them systematically as described in the report, examined them, and set them aside because they only included second-language learners (beyond NRP’s scope). We were concerned about differences between first- and second-language learners, and, we were not willing to generalize from one group to the other given that their learning situations are so different.
Later the National Literacy Panel for Language Minority Children and Youth (NLP), a panel devoted to synthesizing research on second-language learners, examined the Elley studies. Glenn claims the Elley studies were well-designed, but the NLP scientists were troubled by lack of either random assignment or any kind of pretesting. The supposed “gains” from Book Flood may have been pre-existing differences. One book flood study had a sounder design and a positive result, and it was included in NLP. A provocative pattern emerged from that analysis. Three studies, including book flood, showed positive benefits for encouraging reading and three did not. The three that did had second-language learners reading independently in English, and the three negatives had the kids reading in their home languages. The English learners in the positive studies were very isolated from English and had little opportunity to hear it, see it, or use it beyond their school lessons, and this might have been why this treatment was successful. It’s funny that having kids read in their home language had no impact on their reading skills, sort of like the SSR studies with native English speakers.
3. Glenn repeats the incorrect claim that the NRP set aside studies of SSR that did not include oral reading fluency outcomes. That is not the case. That was claimed many years ago by Jim Cunningham whose critique was rife with that kind of misinformation. Glenn apparently believed the critic, but failed to check this out himself. Nope, NRP did not miss some big group of SSR studies that focused on comprehension. Didn’t happen. Those studies were ALL included.
4. Glenn confuses the effects of independent reading with the effectiveness of the methods used to get kids to read more. That is a huge interpretive problem. That reading CAN have positive effects is not proof that particular ways of encouraging kids to read more will be effective (maybe not all approaches for encouraging kids to read work). I remember when Newt Gingrich set up a program to pay kids to read during the summer. Lots of school people set up a howl that claimed paying kids to read would be ineffective. The assumption behind such complaints is that the Gingrich approach is a bad one, not that reading is bad for kids. The fact that SSR has almost no impact on kids learning (average effect sizes are a negligible .05 to .10) should bother people who want to encourage kids to read, since if it doesn’t work, something else should be tried. (Since NRP various researchers, such as James Kim, have been conducting studies where they try to get a learning effect from encouraging reading. They are having a heck of a time of it, because it turns out it is not that easy to get kids to increase their reading enough to make a difference, but we are certainly learning important things from their efforts—more than we are from the folks who are clinging to the failed SSR methodology).
5. Glenn attributed causality to studies that show a correlation between amount of reading and reading quality. Doing that opens the door to lots of quack remedies to reading problems like eye movement training, learning styles, balance beam exercises, etc.—all of which claim effectiveness on the basis of such correlations. A bigger problem with correlations is the fact that the relationship between two variables can be due to their relationship with an intervening variable. I’m surprised those who push these correlations as evidence don’t bother to control for the effects of parent’s socioeconomic status. When you do that, the correlation between amount of reading and reading ability drops dramatically. Kids whose parents have high incomes and high education read more than kids who don’t. (Shhh! Don’t tell the teachers: they might not use SSR if they knew that was the evidence on which it was based).
Glenn expresses concern that teachers have stopped using SSR because of the NRP finding that it had insufficient evidence showing it works. He apparently thinks it is bad that teachers have dropped this ineffective approach. Interestingly, Glenn suggests some ways to improve SSR—and all of his recommendations make it more like instruction, very different from the SSR designs recommended in textbooks or evaluated by research or that one commonly sees practiced in actual classrooms (but more like the reading comprehension interventions that have been found to be so effective). That’s good advice in my opinion, but it makes me wonder why such a smart man is insistent that teachers continue to use such problematic approaches instead of pushing hard for alternative procedures like the ones he notes.
6. Another area I talked of in my article was the findings being reported for studies of reading to children. It turns out that almost none of those studies have reading outcomes, and that the oral language measure used to evaluate the effectiveness of these procedures (simple receptive vocabulary) has a very low relationship with later reading achievement. Glenn’s response is that reading to children has been shown to have a close connection to pre-reading skills… in other words, he takes a “skills-based approach to reading rather than a meaning-based approach focused on comprehension.” Wow that is a very different standard than the one he had a page or two earlier for the NRP. It is those inconsistencies that undermine his arguments: he wants to be able to cherry-pick the evidence that supports his case, no matter what measures were used or how badly the studies were executed, and he wants to be able to ignore the evidence that doesn’t fit with what he wants teachers to do.
Ultimately, that’s why these large public syntheses of research studies by scientists are so important. They are an antidote to the priesthood of professors who claim to be the ones who know best what needs to be done in schools, even as they obscure their claims in mysterious evidentiary standards and inconsistent logic.
Sunday, January 18, 2009
Last week, the National Endowment for the Arts released its new report, Reading on the rise: A new chapter in American literacy. Unlike its most recent previous efforts, this one, as the title suggests, is not a gloom-and-doomer about how American youth is going to hell in a handbasket. In fact, their new report is more consistent with comments I've made in this space than with their own earlier reports.
For the past 25 years, NEA has periodically surveyed American adults to find out about their literary reading habits (literary referring to fiction, poetry, drama, and the like). In 2002, they indicated that there were nearly 7.5 percent fewer adults reading literature than in any past survey and it wouldn't be too much to say that the NEA thought that signaled the end of Western civilization as we know it.
Some observers, me included, pointed out that such a big drop in such a short period was puzzling and improbable, and that perhaps people were reading just as much, just not fiction.
I know in my own personal life, I mix my reading up pretty good. I just read several novels in a row, so to keep fresh, I have started in on Francis Parkman's Montcalm and Wolfe, a history (albeit with a somewhat literary bent in its styling).
The new NEA census indicates that since 2002 the readership of literature has climbed by 3.5% and that more American adults read literature than at any time since they started their studies.
Not surprisingly, NEA couldn't pin this great success on anything. It is totally unclear what might have changed these habits so quickly and what it means (except maybe that Western civilization has been saved after all).
I think the biggest problem in this discussion is the conflating of literacy with literary reading. The NEA has chosen to use its past reports to expound on the idea that young people are lost because they aren't partaking in literary pursuits and that this means they can't read and can't think as well as their predecessors.
Not to put too fine a point on it, that is bunk!
Young people are increasingly doing their reading in electronic forms and using their reading for purposes other than literary. That neither means that they have stopped reading nor stopped thinking.
Here's a new hypothesis on what happened in 2002: America was wracked by the terrorism that hit near the end of 2001, and we plunged into a very difficult war (while debating entering another potentially devastating war in Iraq). Those terrible public events increased interest in understanding terrorism, Middle Eastern politics, war, public events, and religion (Koran sales rose, for instance). Yes, readers could have turned to literature to explore their feelings of anger and impotence, rage and retaliation. Instead, maybe what they did was turned to reading to feed their more rational impulses. Maybe we weren't as concerned about how we felt about things as about what we needed to know to take appropriate action.
The NEA survey treats the reading of history, world culture, public affairs, religion, and current events as being non-literary, and by implication of their argument, non-literate. The literacy that we need must be broader than that, however: our reading ability needs to allow us to make sense of a chemistry text, a Time magazine article, a biography of Osama Bin Laden, the manifesto from the Unibomber, or the President's most recent speech... not just Vanity Fair, The Pickwick Papers, or even The Kite Runner.
Fiction and poetry do fulfill very real human needs, but most adults do not seek to fulfill those particular needs 24/7. Other reading experiences can enable other worthwhile human pursuits. And, sometimes reading isn't even the best place to turn (surveys suggest people sought more family time, for instance, after 9/11--maybe that, too, is where some of the literary reading was shed temporarily).
The implication of NEA's previous reports is that schools must do more to encourage literary reading. The swings in amount of literary reading from period to period, suggest that the type of reading one engages in is due more to contemporary needs than education. People use reading to fulfill their needs. Schools should redouble their efforts to increase the depth and quality of the reading that its students can engage in, and expose students to a wide range of texts and uses of reading. That way, whether the individual is trying to improve their sexual prowess (The Joy of Sex), enhance their ability to be a citizen (Dreams of My Father), or trying to find out how to cope emotionally with the death of a spouse (The Sea), they will have a book (or a website) to turn to.
Sunday, July 27, 2008
In this morning’s New York Times, Motoko Rich (the Times cultural reporter) has a terrific article about reading on the Internet http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/27/books/27reading.html. This article is a continuation of a discussion Ms. Rich and I had awhile back about the National Endowment for the Arts’ study that claimed young people were no longer reading. I responded to that study by opining that survey respondents do not include their Internet reading time, even though they might be reading newspapers and books online. The Chicago Tribune followed up on that story at the time by interviewing Chicago area young people, and these young people both separated their reading time from computer time as I said they would, and were doing lots of reading on the computer (about an hour a day; mainly reading newspapers and magazines).
The new discussion in the Times is great. Some of it gets a bit precious, but ultimately it helps to sharpen the discussion of the value of reading and how hard we should push for kids to read. There are those in education (and in the media) who want everyone to read, and they evidently believe that reading has some positive impact on students.
The new discussion underlines that reading enthusiasts want kids to read, but they want this because they assume reading practice will focus on particular types of reading materials and particular types of reading. Reading a book and reading a book online are somewhat different activities for most of us. I find myself skimming more, for instance, when I read on a computer; for a more intensive experience with a text (to really make sure I get it), I tend to print it out and mark it up.
A good deal of reading online is of the skimming and scanning sort; the reader dips in and reads shallowly for a brief period and moves on. Of course, lots of book reading is of this type, too. Most interventions aimed at increasing the amount that students read in books tend not to find improvement in reading skills, perhaps because the kids aren’t really reading or are picking materials not likely to have any learning impact or because they are reading too shallowly. The impact of reading practice is likely to be pretty thin if the readers aren’t deeply engaged with the text (and when you are reading only because 20 minutes of class time has been assigned for this, how deeply do you need to engage?).
I suspect that many people want kids to read because they believe it will foster habits of mind that are grounded in a kind of intellectual depth or perseverance. The energy required to read a 400-page book and to keep ideas alive across that thorough a presentation is an example of the strength of mind that we want students to develop. A comic might be a reasonable place to start, but the benefits of that kind of practice runs out pretty quickly. On the Internet a lot of the reading is of the 5- to 10-second variety (kids move onto another page after such brief immersions), and that won’t have much of an impact.
We don’t really want to know if kids read anymore, because when phrased like that the question doesn’t get at anything that matters (sorry NEA). We want to know what they read, how much they read, how they read, and what they do with what they read. The adolescent boy who can read a sports page well enough to find out if the Cubs won yesterday or what time Saturday’s NASCAR race will be on television is reading, but not in ways that will likely increase literacy skills. A girl always lost in a romance novel, but who never talks about them or thinks about them beyond the reading is probably doing little to improve either. When we tell parents that it is important that their kids read, what do we mean? What should kids read? And how can they do this so that it helps to sharpen their critical thinking abilities and their intellectual perseverance?
Friday, June 13, 2008
There was more information on pleasure reading published this week in report from Scholastic, a publisher with a deep financial interest in children’s and adolescent reading. This report unlike other recent reports does not paint such a bleak picture of the reading crisis in America. They interviewed more than 500 kids from preschool through age 17 and found that 90% of kids thought reading was important for learning, and that about 75% of kids indicated that they read for pleasure at least once a week (almost 25% claim to read every day). The major reason that they say they don’t read for pleasure is because they have other things to do, like working on computers. Some of that time might be spent on just dumb video games, but at least some of it is spent on other reading and writing activities (two-thirds of the kids said they have looked up authors and other book-related information on line).
The bad news in the report (and this is not new—I’ve found surveys all the way back to World War I with the same pattern) is that older students read less than younger students do. Preschoolers like books more than elementary kids do, and elementary kids like them more than teens. Similarly, boys were somewhat less taken with reading than were girls.
Of course, this is all self report (though there was some corroboration from parents in this study). Kids might be reading, but perhaps they don’t read enough when they do read, and maybe they don’t push themselves to read more challenging or worthwhile stuff. In any event, the big problem with kids reading is not that they don’t see its value or that they never practice—neither is true for most kids, not even for adolescent males. Indeed, it would be great if kids practiced reading more—but, the report suggests to me that the problem here has less to do with convincing kids that they like reading, and more to do with making sure they can read well enough that their reading skills match their interest levels (nothing worse than wanting to read a book that matches that emotional and developmental interests of a young teen and finding that you can only handle primary texts—sort of like being on an all liquid diet).
The questions to parents indicated that preschool and primary grade parents read to their kids, but that parents of older students do not. While this isn’t surprising, I can’t say that it makes me happy. I read to my own children until they were in 8th grade, but that was more for closeness between us than to help them read. To help them read better the research indicates that I would have been better off listening to them read or at least talking to them about what they were reading and what it meant. Sadly many parents back away from "reading with kids" once they stop reading to kids, and that is a big mistake.
Set aside time for your family to read (yes, turn off the TV and limit access to the computers and cell phones). Listen to your kids read. Talk to them about the ideas in the books they are reading. Show an interest in their reading lives (my two daughters are grown up and accomplished young women: one is a managing editor/lawyer and one is a bio-engineer: I rarely get together with either of them when the conversation doesn’t turn to what they are reading).
Friday, May 9, 2008
At Lesley Morrow's preconvention institute on Sunday, I spoke about teaching fluency to young children (preschoolers and primary grade kids).
On Tuesday, I gave two addresses on Disciplinary Literacy based on work that Cyndie Shanahan and I have been doing. One of these talks was for the Reading Hall of Fame (this was my induction talk) and the other was for a symposium that Carnegie Corporation sponsored (they funded our work on this).
On Wednesday, I gave a talk reporting some of the results of the Report of the National Early Literacy Panel. I was pleased to do this because Patricia Edwards had invited me to present on behalf of the National Reading Conference.
Finally, on Wednesday I gave a booth talk for Pearson Publishing, the publishers of my program AMP, on motivating middle school students to read.
All of those talks can be found with the following link:
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
Blogs can be useful for making powerpoint presenta- tions available and it can save trouble for everyone. If you've seen me make a speech and want a copy of the powerpoint, in the past you would contact me, make the request, and then wait for me to get back to you (when it may or may not have matched your needs). Now, I just have to post the information here and you can download it any time you want to--no waiting at all.
Just click on this link, and voila, you can see video: Shanahan_Ira_Video.mov
Monday, December 31, 2007
December 31, 2007
The National Endowment for the Arts report on reading habits in the U.S. continues to reverberate. This is a report that American journalists are fascinated by. As one reporter explained to me today, he was writing for an audience of literary writers (poets, novelists, and the like), and he indicated that the NEA report was discouraging to that audience. “They wonder if it is even worth writing a novel, if no one is going to read it.”
My skepticism about the NEA report is two-fold: first, I doubt that we are really reading less than in the past, and second, I don’t believe that the reason we’re not doing better in literacy attainment is due to our lack of pleasure reading. I do believe that Americans, while not reading less, are certainly reading differently and I suspect that is really what NEA has tapped into. American kids aren’t really reading less well than the last generation, so this supposed drop in reading practice is not the culprit (since there was no murder, there can be no murderer). I don’t even think more reading practice is the key to helping our kids to read better than those in previous generations; that will take more and better teaching from the schools.
The shift in American’s taste for reading is interesting, and indeed it should be threatening to the fiction writing community. Publisher association industry studies have tracked the reading habits of American adults for decades. These studies in aggregate reveal that at one time the chief focus of pleasure reading was the novel—for both men and women. By the 1950s, men’s tastes had shifted, perhaps because of the war and the greater economic opportunities available, but surveys started to show a much bigger interest in science, biography, history, automotives, and so on. Women’s tastes have made the same shift, but only recently (during the past decade or so), and now even children seem to prefer fact to story, a new development.
There is all kinds of evidence supporting this shift, beyond these industry surveys. For instance, think how popular memoirs have become. I’m not speaking here of traditional autobiographies, such as those written by politicians and movie stars. Instead, I have in mind books like Angela’s Ashes and A Boy’s Life. In an earlier era, these writers would have proudly claimed these works as fictional inventions, but now they clamor to have readers believe them to be fact-based narratives. Fifty years ago, an author would have been proud to have written a book from their own imagination; now authors hope readers will believe what they have written is just an act of memory.
Young readers are reading, but they are reading on the Internet, they are reading books about cooking and dieting, and true life accounts of sports heroes, and television personalities. The NEA is confusing the shift to that kind of reading as being a shift away from reading altogether.
As a reading professor and former president of the International Reading Association, I’m really just as happy if someone reads a biography of Benjamin Franklin as I am if they read the latest Booker Prize recipient. However, if I were a novelist, I’d still be concerned, since these studies are showing a lessening of interest in novels. My disagreement with NEA matters in such a case, as I would guess that different strategies will be needed to pull non-readers into reading versus those that would be used to try to get informational text readers to shift over to literary reading. If I were a literary publisher, I would be working on the latter problem and not the former one.
Friday, December 7, 2007
The Chicago Sun-Times editorial of December 6, 2007 (http://www.suntimes.com/news/commentary/683762,CST-EDT-edit06a.article) is a thoughtful and helpful response to the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) recent report on reading. The Sun-Times “informal survey” reveals much that NEA missed. The NEA report claims reading has disappeared from the lives of young people and that this loss limits educational attainment as well as the economic, social, and physical health of the nation. The Sun-Times shows that the picture is more complicated than that.
Reading hasn’t necessarily disappeared, but it certainly has changed, and technology is the culprit in either scenario. One image of this is the familiar one… the new technologies are diverting kids’ recreational time from reading. According to that view, kids use to read a lot, but now they are diverted by I-PODs, computers and the like. This new argument really picks up where the previous one left off: in that version, it was television that stole kids’ reading time (and, truth be told, the television argument was the replacement for the one about radio preventing reading).
However, the Sun-Times story suggests an alternative and far more complicated picture. According to their interviews, young people may be trading their book reading for computer time, but most of that time in front of a screen appears to be spent reading. Not surprisingly, when students are asked about their pleasure reading, they don’t even think of the time they are working with text on a computer. Unlike television and radio, computer time does not necessarily reduce the amount of reading… perhaps it even extends it. You don’t have to read to watch “Heroes,” but it is hard to find out what you want to in Facebook without reading. That means kids may be reading no less than in the recent past (though given how busy we all are with so many things, it wouldn't surprise me that reading--even computer reading--could be down a bit, just like exercise, eating with the family, or getting sufficient sleep time may be down).
Information technology sure complicates the reading picture. It is the increase of technology in the workplace that has been such an impetus to increasing the demand for skilled workers; workers who can read well enough to do all that is needed on a computer screen. Increasingly, policemen, nurses, factory workers, truck drivers, tradesmen, farmers, and mechanics need to have literacy skills beyond anything required a generation ago. So technology is increasing the demand for reading skills at the same time it is steering kids away from traditional forms of reading.
In my view, technology is demanding that we increase our instructional efforts to ensure that more kids leave our schools prepared to participate fully in the social life of the community. And, while I suspect that the "reading practice" they get from working on a website is every bit as good as the practice in a book if the point is making sure kids can respond to print in a skilled fashion, I doubt that computer reading is supporting the same level of intellectual energy and depth that more traditional reading can. There is value in having to deal with the extended arguments that books often provide. Historically, when literacy shifted from the reading of brief messages (graffiti, signs carved into buildings, tablets with royal inventories) to the reading of extended philosophical treatises, histories, and stories, human culture--and maybe even the human mind--were changed. Now we may be shifting our reading time back to those kinds of short messages.
Our goal shouldn't be just to push more reading practice--or even to get kids off the computer and into books--but to steer their attention to the reading and use of complex texts wherever they may be and whatever form they may take. I do not fear kids reading on computers, I fear that too much of that reading time is superficial (just like a lot of reading time in books is superficial). Kids need to understand that the brain and the heart are a lot a like; if you want a healthy heart you have to get off your butt, and if you want a healthy brain you need to do some heavy lifting. That means reading and writing more extended works that are hard to understand, talking with others--including IM’ing--about what you read, and trying to use what you read to accomplish other goals
Monday, November 19, 2007
November 19, 2007
The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has done a great service by trying to monitor how much young people and adults are reading. http://www.nea.gov/research/ResearchReports_chrono.html Although I certainly agree with NEA on the importance of reading--especially extended reading of challenging and worthwhile text, and I suspect that NEA is right students and adults are doing less of such reading these days, I do have some disagreements with them.
One concern is that I think their measurement of amount of reading is likely flawed. People are notoriously bad at reporting how they spend their time, unless they provide the information right then. Ask folks how much they read this morning and they'll give you a better answer than if you ask how often do you read or how much did you read last week. Also, in past studies, it is apparent that there are a wide range of interpretations of what it means to read for fun. For example, in one study, men said they never read at all, because they thought only fiction reading counted (though they read work materials and magazines about hunting, automobiles and other factual topics).
My second and more important concern (the first matters, but let's face it, I'm quibbling) has to do with what the problem is and what the solution is. The NEA report seems to indicate that if students just read more they would read better, and lots of school teachers and professors would agree with that conclusion: this is the kids' problem and they can solve it themselves. Unfortunately, far too many of our kids can't read well enough that they would choose to read. Recent research is showing that the impact of reading on achievement is more complicated than was once thought; practice is a great idea, but not all kinds and amounts of practice serve to improve reading. For instance, I have no doubt that kids do a lot of IMing these days, but reading your buddy's 14 syllable message probably doesn't provide the same intellectual challenge--or payoff--that reading a demanding chemistry book could have. The solution isn't making reading into more of a duty, but making sure that more kids can engage it successfully. One interpretation of the problem would flood classrooms, homes, and communities with books; the other would improve the schools. Let's face it, this second approach is harder and more expensive, but it is the one that will more likely pay off eventually.
It is ironic that the young people born during the past 25 years have had the benefits of more programs and school and community efforts to get them to read than any before it. Books have become more accessible, schools provide time for pleasure reading, pediatricians give books to parents, television networks encourage reading, book clubs have grown, instructional programs use library books rather than textbooks, and dozens of other efforts have been made. The outcomes of those efforts have been ably summarized in the NEA report--a generation that, in spite of lots of encouragement to read, chooses to read even less than those who received less institutional encouragement. Perhaps our efforts to make kids love reading have robbed kids of the sense that reading is a choice. In our zeal to make kids love reading, we have transformed reading into a duty; something that is good for you--like eating your vegetables--not something that is dangerous, fascinating, sexy, and individual. Think of the child with comic book and flashlight under the covers late at night sneaking a delectable, but unauthorized read. I almost expect to hear that schools are now assigning such reading (even sending home the flashlights), but that kind of authorization would only drain it of its joy. No wonder kids aren't reading as much as before.
Wednesday, November 7, 2007
November 7, 2007
Here is one of my most controversial columns as President of the International Reading Association. It upset a lot of people, but it is important that everyone understands that encouraging kids to read effectively isn't as easy as first thought.
Does he really think kids shouldn’t read?
I’m a new president. And some might wonder about my ability to represent IRA. So, let me begin this first column of my presidency with an appraisal of the IRA mission.
IRA has three purposes: (1) to improve the quality of reading instruction, (2) to encourage reading and an interest in reading, and (3) to promote reading proficiency. My career has focused on purposes 1 and 3, so no should be concerned in those areas.
But many IRA members emphasize encouraging a love of reading. They care about literacy levels, but they care even more about creating a culture of literacy.
What’s the problem? To many, I’m the guy who says it doesn’t matter if kids read! (Who would make an idiot like that president of IRA?)
I’ve never said it doesn’t matter if kids read. While being “misquoted” is an easy out, I don’t want to get off the hook that easily, as I’ve said enough things like that. For instance, I’ve said research doesn’t show that encouraging reading improves reading, and that sustained silent reading (SSR) is probably not such a good idea.
If love of reading is why you joined IRA, what might you expect from my presidency?
· Bans against “Children’s Choices?”
· Increased IRA emphasis on watching television?
· Lots of frowning?
No one need fear these possibilities. I love reading, and I, too, want to live in a society in which readers and print are free to associate and in which they associate frequently.
I first learned of SSR when I was a new teacher. It sounded great. Stock your room with books and magazines, and provide time when kids can read without being bothered by teaching. I tracked down carpet for the library corner, and lots of books. I don’t think my kids ever missed a day of SSR.
So what went wrong? I read the research. What got me wondering was that the studies often didn’t find a benefit, but claimed one any way. Researchers would divide kids between SSR and “normal instruction,” find that the groups learned equally well, and would then conclude that since reading is as effective as teaching, SSR must be a good idea.
But what is “normal instruction”? Often, it turned out that the kids were assigned random worksheets. What a terrible definition of teaching! Assigning random worksheets is dopey and that it did as well as reading made me wonder.
The issue isn’t whether it is good to practice. It is whether we can get kids to read more—and to read enough to improve their reading ability.
I was on the National Reading Panel (NICHD, 2000) and we looked into this. There were few published studies on encouraging reading, and even fewer rigorously implemented ones, or that had positive results. Only one study even bothered to find out how much the kids were reading—and it found SSR led to less reading (Summers & McClelland, 1982). Yikes! The panel concluded judiciously that we needed more evidence. We simply don’t know how to get kids to read more (Kamil, 2006; Yoon & Won, 2001).
There is research on motivation, but those studies don’t tell how to motivate kids. Motivating kids to read is more complicated than teaching them to read. Lots of instructional approaches improve achievement, but what about motivation? What stimulates one person may not work for another. Providing an on-your-own reading time may be a boon for one kid and a bust for another (“Boring!”). It is even more complicated than that, as what excites us at one moment might not work later. I love reading about baseball, but I think I’ll skip the new expose on Barry Bonds.
That we hope to expand the literacy franchise means we are dedicated to educational opportunity for all. Such efforts are a service to our society—in the same way the work of nurses, businessmen, plumbers, and accountants are a service. That we are committed to literacy as a source of pleasure serves society in less obvious ways, as it is more about the kind of society we hope to create.
One goal is a public responsibility, while the other is a personal aspiration. That is a critical distinction. It means the larger community expects, or even requires, us to teach well, but the stimulating desire part is our game, not theirs.
No teacher should be deflected from meeting the responsibility to teach. To teach reading well, we must jealously safeguard instructional time (since it belongs to the kids and the community) and follow the research carefully. To encourage reading, we have to invest ourselves as individuals, and follow our hearts.
Ultimately, the difference comes down to freedom of choice. No one has the right to refuse to become literate: “Other people can read for me, thank you very much. I just don’t want that kind of responsibility.” The implications would be too grave to allow a youngster to opt out. But choices about what to love must belong to the individual.
Teachers are institutional beings…they work for schools, governments, and societies. Teachers must carry out their responsibilities to the best of their abilities. But what about personal goals like encouraging reading? There are dangers—to an individual and to a democracy—when public institutions and public instruments try to dictate personal taste and individual choice. Institutionalizing efforts to encourage reading may even be self defeating—as students may resist to protect their individual autonomy.
As president, I will continue to work on public initiatives to improve reading instruction and achievement. As for encouraging reading, my role will be to cheer on all who have made it their personal quest to invite kids to a life of reading—a personal invitation I hope they can extend successfully to their students.
Kamil, M. (2006, April). A quasi-experimental test of recreation reading: Data from a two-year study. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, CA.
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction (NIH Publication No. 00-4769). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. (Also available from http://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/nrp/smallbook.htm.)
Summers, E.G., & McClelland, J.V. (1982). A field-based evaluation of sustained silent reading (SSR) in intermediate grades. Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 28, 100–112.
Yoon, J., & Won, J. (2001, December). Three decades of sustained silent reading: A meta-analysis of its’ effects on reading attitude and reading comprehension. Paper presented at the National Reading Conference, San Antonio, TX.