Education Opinion

First Do No Harm (Reprise)

By Donalyn Miller — April 02, 2012 3 min read
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Testing season is upon us and in many classrooms the pressure to assure all students pass minimum proficiency on standardized tests overwhelms teachers and reduces meaningful teaching to test prep. According to Richard Allington in What Really Matters for Struggling Readers: Designing Research-Based Programs:

Test preparation might produce a small benefit if it works to ensure students are familiar with the test format, but too much practice on formats produces careless errors. The best guideline for test preparation would seem to be to practice a couple of days before the test to familiarize students with the test format and to introduce or review, general test-taking strategies. But daily periods of test preparation across the school year seems more likely to result in lower performances because most test preparation involves little, if any, teaching of useful reading strategies or development of world knowledge (Allington, 2006, 23-24).

While there is no research to support that test prep improves students’ reading ability or standardized test performance, extensive test practice and the teaching of test-taking strategies continue to replace or subvert quality reading instruction in some schools. I encourage you to revisit this post, which appeared in February of 2008, as a reminder of why we teach and where our responsibilities lie-- with the young readers we serve.

First Do No Harm

Primum non nocere- “First do no harm”. This tenet of the medical profession reminds doctors to consider the negative consequences of any medical intervention alongside the advantages. Quality of life for the patient overrides the good intentions of any course of treatment even if there are perceived benefits. I believe that the teaching profession needs this lesson as much as doctors do.

Young children love to read, or at least be read to. The most dormant sixth graders in my classes can recall a book they have loved, even if it was Green Eggs and Ham. Following years of schooling, this book love goes away for many kids. Those of us who are charged with teaching students to read claim not to understand why this love for reading and books go away, but I secretly (OK, not so secretly, now) suspect that we do know. The manner in which schools institutionalize reading takes this love away from children.

What does reading look like for you? For me, reading is not just something I do; being a reader is who I am. In many ways, being a reader has defined my life. I married a reader, hang out with other readers, and have dedicated my professional life to working with children as a reading teacher.

Not only am I a passionate reader, I am a great test taker, too. I can dissect tests on topics that I do not know that much about (check out my GRE scores) in large part because I am a great reader. But, let’s not put the cart before the horse, I am good test-taker because I am a good reader; I am not a good reader because I am good test-taker.

Standardized reading test season has descended on classrooms, and the reading instruction in many has narrowed to a handful of test-taking tricks drilled into students day in and day out in a monotonous stream of acronyms, chants, and tricks labeled as strategies. Make no mistake about it, no matter what we proclaim to our students about book love the rest of the year, this is the message they get from us about what reading is. As instruction becomes limited to test-taking drill and kill, we are slowly strangling the joy of reading out of students, and without quality instruction in how to read well, we are narrowing their possibilities as readers forever.

Are there any teachers in the world who truly, with all of their hearts, believe that they are creating lifelong readers with all of this drill? The ugly truth is we know we aren’t, but we are doing what our administrators, parents, and legislators expect from us-- get students to pass the test, the test, the test. If our students don’t ever pick up a book again after graduation, it is not our fault.

What we fail to accept is that those students who grew to love reading in spite of us still do better on these tests than all of the kids who endured years of reading instruction by highlighter, but never really read. Avid “I cannot wait to get my hands on a book” readers outstrip their peers on every test, every time.

Isn’t this what students should learn from us about reading?

It is an ethical issue, not just an educational one. Children trust us and deserve more.

So, first, do no harm. Do not take away that love of reading in the name of the greater good (Good for whom?). It ultimately kills. It kills children’s love of reading for all of their lives.

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.