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Parents: Reading Role Models or Victims of Readicide?

By Donalyn Miller — January 14, 2009 3 min read

Last week, the Department of Education released its latest report about the state of reading in America. Results, estimated from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), indicate that 32 million adult Americans lack fundamental literacy skills. Leaders in adult literacy education cite undiagnosed learning disabilities, immigration, and high school dropout rates as factors, but illiterate adults are not the only ones who aren’t reading. An oft-quoted 2007 Associated Press Poll found that 27% of adult Americans did not read a single book in 2006. It seems that fewer and fewer adults are reading—some due to poor reading ability and others by choice.

While we teachers may not identify with the mounting numbers of alliterate and illiterate adults in America (after all, we are reading, aren’t we?), these non-readers cross our paths—at meet the teacher nights and conferences. Many of the adults who don’t read are the parents of our students. Teachers expect parents to support literacy at home—reading to their children, taking them to the library and buying books, and sharing their literacy lives. What about parents who cannot do the job?

It is popular for educators to list poor parent role modeling as a reason, out of our control, when students cannot read well. Can we talk about the fact that these parents were once students in our classrooms, too? Many of these parents made it through the American educational system and never mastered basic reading skills or internalized reading as a meaningful pursuit. When you ask adults what they remember most about English class, they recall dissecting classics and copying definitions from dictionaries. Schools are not creating capable, lifelong readers, yet we expect parents to rise from the ashes of their own reading failures or apathy and become reading role models for their own kids.

I hear it almost every day, “He is just like his father, he hates to read, too,” or “I was never a reader much myself, she must have gotten that from me,” as if reading interest and ability are traits you inherit like eye color or attached earlobes. A reading gene has not been found, but we recognize the environmental connection. Parents who don’t read often have children who don’t read, and the generational cycle continues on and on.

If we want our students to have reading role models at home, perhaps we should start graduating some.

For parents who do read, they often battle schools to keep their children reading. My husband and I read enough books to raise the average for our entire neighborhood. But our strong examples are not always enough to encourage our two daughters to read. When our oldest daughter was in high school, the major activity in her English classes was watching movies adapted from books she never read. Our fourth grader spends her days cranking out endless test practice worksheets and reading Pollyanna for two months. It is all we can do to keep the reading fires burning in the deluge of soul-killing reading instruction our daughters receive at school.

I know that many of you stoke these fires in your classrooms every day, like I do, but there is no guarantee that students who leave our classrooms strong, avid readers will remain so until graduation (or parenthood). Systemic change in reading instruction from the first day of kindergarten to the last day of high school must occur before we can consistently guarantee readers will emerge from our schools. The task seems daunting.

One respected voice, who offers solutions, is Kelly Gallagher. Well-known as a literacy consultant and author of three popular books on adolescent literacy, Kelly confronts the lack of critical reading skills and poor motivation to read with his high school students every day. In his newest book, Readicide: How Schools are Killing Reading and What You Can Do about It, Kelly explores how schools often cause students to hate reading or fail to cultivate necessary literacy skills and suggests more effective instructional strategies that have proven successful with his own students.

Kelly selected “The Book Whisperer” as a stop on his Readicide blog book tour. Preview the entire manuscript of Readicide free, and submit questions for Kelly by posting comments to this blog. Answers to your questions will appear on January 28th. Readicide will steel your resolve and promote dialogue with your colleagues and administrators. Check out this powerful addition to the reading instruction debate and add your voice to what should be a national conversation.

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.