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Education Opinion

First Do No Harm

By Donalyn Miller — February 24, 2008 2 min read
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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 all other benefits of a course of treatment. I believe that the teaching profession needs this lesson as much as doctors do.

Little children love to read, or at least be read to. Even the most dormant readers in my classes can remember a book they have loved, even if it was Green Eggs and Ham. How sad that they have to reach back to their preschool memories to recall a book which they enjoyed. After years of schooling, book love goes away for many kids. Those of us who are charged with teaching students to read claim not to understand why love for reading and books goes 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 something I am. In many ways, being a reader has defined my life. I married a reader, hang out with other readers in book clubs and grad classes, and have dedicated my professional life to working with children as a reading teacher. I want my students to see reading the way that I do.

Not only am I a passionate reader, I am a great test taker, too. I can dissect tests on topics which I do not know that much about in large part because I am a great reader. Let me repeat, I am a good test-taker because I am a good reader; I am not a good reader because I am a good test-taker.

Standardized reading test season has descended on classrooms, and the reading instruction in many of these rooms has narrowed to a handful of test-taking tricks drilled into students day in and day out in an endless, monotonous stream of acronyms, chants, and 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 school about what reading is. The focus on test-taking “drill and kill” slowly strangles the joy of reading out of students, and narrows their possibilities as readers forever more.

Is there any teacher in the world who truly, with all of their hearts, believes that they are creating resilient, capable readers with all of this drill? The ugly truth is we know we aren’t, but we are doing what many 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 confront in our hearts is the reality that those students who grew to love reading in spite of us still do better on those tests than all of the kids who endured years of reading instruction by highlighter, but never really read. Readers real-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 instructional one. Children, who once sat on a lap and fell in love with a book, trust us and deserve more.

First, do no harm. Do not take away that love of reading for the sake of a test score. There is a reason it’s called “drill and kill.” 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.

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