Education Opinion

Ending Readicide

By Donalyn Miller — January 28, 2009 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

A recent post from NYC Educator recounts an exchange with students about reading and how much they hate it. It is not hard to see the connection between this conversation and Readicide: How Schools are Killing Reading and What You Can Do about It, Kelly Gallagher’s newest book. I mentioned Readicide in my last post and invited readers to check out Kelly’s book and post questions about it.

I am not a big reader of books on the Web, preferring to curl up with the paper version, but I read Readicide over one long Saturday afternoon. Gallagher’s book is compelling—full of alarming statistics that validate the beliefs of many teachers who see that standardized-testing is slowly killing reading for students and changing how reading is taught in America. Gallagher does not see this trend as irreversible, though. Each chapter provides practical, classroom-tested lessons that offer students more meaningful reading instruction than how to pass a test. The chapters explaining how teachers underteach books when failing to build students’ background knowledge for a book and overteach books by beating every literary element into the ground were particularly relevant—both in my own teaching and my conversations with colleagues.

Gallagher has traveled a five blog tour promoting his book and answering questions from readers. This week, Gallagher responds to the concerns of readers here at “The Book Whisperer.”

Administrators are enamored with data. They want multiple interim assessments that are showing progress towards goals. They want that data to be able to be put in reports and graphs and to be able to use it to compare teachers and/or schools. They want a uniform curriculum. And while I can understand their concerns as it applies to other content areas, what can I say to get them to realize that reading is so totally different that comparisons are not only faulty but dangerous?—Ramona Lowe, posted January 14, 2009

KG: I make the point in Readicide that I don’t think it has to be an either/or proposition. What I mean by this is that students can learn to read at richer and deeper levels without sacrificing test scores. If you teach students to read and write well, they will do fine on exams. But if we only teach students to read for exams, they will never read and write well. Good teaching will raise reading scores and help students become readers. Poor teaching sacrifices long-term reading goals for test results. For evidence of this, read Judith Langer’s Effective Literacy Instruction.

I wondered what Gallagher thought parents should do to offset the underteaching /overteaching. How do we know what teachers are doing, unless we can go to the classroom and sit in on the lessons? (I’m sure they would love that, and even if I did sit in on the lessons, I don’t feel qualified to criticize someone who is probably doing their best in a rigged system.) Should we all rise up against useless worksheets and sticky notes?--zh posted on January 16, 2009

KG: Sticky notes, per se, are not a bad thing. I use them in my classroom to help students sharpen their reading skills. It’s the drowning of books in sticky notes that are a problem. As far as parenting goes, the most important thing you can do to counter readicide is to surround your children with high-interest reading materials and to model the pleasures of reading yourself. Be mindful of what Jim Trelease (author of The Read Aloud Handbook) calls the 3 B’s: the breakfast table, the bathroom, and the bed---make sure kids always have something to read at these three locations.
Ask your child’s teacher what is being done to foster recreational reading in the school. Share some of the studies in Readicide. Share the findings in the book with teachers and administrators. If your student is given obvious busy work, politely ask the teacher for the rationale.

You’ve got a work that’s part of the curriculum, and it’s challenging enough that you know you can’t just assign it. (Because that’s UNDERTEACHING, and we don’t do that, do we? NO!) And it’s not a short story or a brief poem - it’s pretty long.
What are some strategies that YOU use to promote understanding (so we don’t have to review and review and review) when the material is tough, and/or ones that promote engagement (so that if we DO have to spend some time reviewing, they’re not already bored going in) when the work is assigned rather than self-selected?—clix posted January 27, 2009

KG: It’s a complex question, and of course, there is no canned answer. That is why teaching is so hard. There are a number of approaches that I do, most of them listed in my books Deeper Reading and Readicide, but I’ll share two quick ideas here.

1) I spend a lot of time teaching my students the value of 2nd and 3rd draft reading. I start with Humpty Dumpty and move up from there (Humpty Dumpty is not really about an egg; it takes more than one reading to figure that out). If you are teaching a great book, students should never be bored on a second draft reading---there is so much to discover that they didn’t see the first time they read the text. When teaching a required difficult text, I am always careful to decide what the specific purpose is going to be for reading the text and I teach to that purpose. I frame the text to support their reading and I help them heavily in the early chapters (before gradually releasing). Even with my scaffolding, their first draft readings are always surface-level readings. With that in mind, I plan periodical close readings---where we will spend an entire period examining a short passage. We will read it a number of times, each time through a different lens. I never focus on whether my students like the book; our focus is always on what value the book has to offer the modern reader.

2) I also talk a lot in Deeper Reading about the importance that confusion plays. When my students come to me they think confusion is bad. They are wrong. Confusion is the place where learning occurs. I teach my students what readers do when confronted by confusing passages. I do a lot of read aloud/think alouds in front of my students. I have them chart their confusion as they begin working their way into the novel. We stop periodically to see how much of their confusion has begun to lift. I work hard with my students to get them to see that strong readers do a much better job of working through ambiguity.

Check out Gallagher’s other interviews at: A Year of Reading, The Tempered Radical, The Dream Teacher, and The Reading Zone and discover methods for countering readicide in your own school and classroom.

**Although the news is all over the Web by now, I would be remiss in not mentioning that the American Library Association announced its 2009 children’s book award winners on Monday. I enjoyed the Newbery Gold Medal winner, The Graveyard Book, by Neal Gaiman, although I prefer his adult works like the Sandman graphic novels and American Gods. It dismayed me that my favorite book last year, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins did not win anything—other than universal critical acclaim and six digit initial sales figures…

The opinions expressed in The Book Whisperer are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.