Does He Really Think Kids Shouldn't Read

  • amount of instruction amount of reading
  • 07 November, 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.

Summers, E.G., and 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., and 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.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Rachel Rennie Klingelhofer May 23, 2017 06:16 PM

This is very interesting. I present this dilemma to my students when I teach a literacy methods course. After reading "Other People's Words" (Purcell-Gates, 1997), I ask them to consider whether the job of teachers is solely to help kids like "Donny" learn to read, or also to learn to love reading. I juxtapose some of Purcell-Gates's words with those of Lucy Calkins in "The Art of Teaching Reading," the latter offering much more "flowery" language about her hopes for students--“I want children to know what it is to open a good book and be opened by that good book"--that is difficult to mesh with the reality of Donny's seeming desires for his free time and future. It always sparks a lot of discussion.

Timothy Shanahan Jul 02, 2017 01:37 AM


As well it should. The idea of teaching students to love something is fraught with problems since it imposes on individual freedom in a way that government enterprises, perhaps, should not. I have two children: one adores reading and one thinks it to be just fine. Should the school try to change the second given that she would rather invest her time in her social life and athletics, etc.? Or is it our job to decide what people will or should enjoy. Why does reading get this special treatment? What about music? Or drawing? Or running? We have a responsibility to make sure that students know literacy well enough to gain the full benefits of this society and to allow them to choose to love it if they so choose. Of course, setting love of reading or lifelong reading as goals is problematic since we don't actually have sound measures of either (one of the great things about this goal is that no one can tell if I have reached it).

I love reading and I'd certainly share that with kids... but the idea that they have to like what i do seems tyranical. (I love ice cream, and eat it whenever I get a chance. My hunch is if I promoted that love in others I might do harm to the ones with a slower metabolism than my own). thanks.

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Does He Really Think Kids Shouldn't Read


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.