Learning Not To Read

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The time given to curricular subjects reflects the importance placed on them by schools and communities.

Reading, in its broadest possible sense, from the most mundane to the most imaginative purposes, is one of the most critical skills that young adolescents can obtain. All young adolescents need access to the kinds of reading opportunities that will allow them to grow up to be successful members of a literature community. It is the responsibility of middle schools to ensure that students become proficient and lifelong readers.

Fifty years ago, most 6th, 7th, and 8th graders had one period a day for a reading class as well as English, mathematics, science, and social studies classes. Today's young adolescents may have considerably less time for reading. Missing from many schools without reading classes is attention to the development of the complex range of skills necessary for becoming an adept reader of many kinds of materials, as well as the practice time necessary to perfect these skills.

Superintendents, curriculum directors, and principals must accept a great deal of responsibility for the fact that many middle schools have eliminated reading classes. When time was needed to lengthen class time, to learn a foreign language, or to become skilled in the use of computers, many middle schools opted to add literature to the English curriculum and eliminate reading classes and teachers.

The academic time of the school day was preserved for mathematics, science, and social studies. English, by assuming responsibility for literature as well as writing, was naturally important, and took an equal share of the academic time. Reading, because of its importance to all subject areas, was presumably integrated into all subjects. Obviously, reading teachers were unable to defend the need for systematic reading classes, and superintendents and principals let it happen.

The complexity of the issues notwithstanding, something substantial was lost. Indeed, while embracing the philosophy that all middle-grades teachers are teachers of reading, few middle schools have been able to sustain a quality reading program.

According to the 1998 results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 69 percent of 4th graders in high-poverty schools and 23 percent in low-poverty schools are not able to read at even the basic level on NAEP. As these students enter the middle grades, they have fewer opportunities for reading in schools that have dropped reading classes.

Are school districts and communities satisfied that middle schools have a high rate of success in ensuring that their students are successful readers?

Time is of vital importance in curriculum theory and practice. The time given to various curricular subjects reflects the importance placed on those subjects by schools and communities. Herbert J. Walberg, a research professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, found that 88 percent of more than 100 studies showed that time had a positive influence on learning. Given the elimination of reading as a subject in many middle schools, we are obliged to face two questions: Are school districts and communities satisfied that middle schools, without providing time for reading classes, have a high rate of success in ensuring that their students are successful readers? And how can middle schools justify the addition of reading classes when those same schools once justified the need to eliminate reading classes for all students?

Elementary schools allocate time for reading and provide teachers who are responsible for systematic reading classes. These teachers have time to read aloud to students, provide weekly visits to the school library, and participate in statewide programs that engage students with books. Middle schools, without time for systematic reading courses, place less emphasis on voluntary reading.

Nowhere is this dramatic simplification of middle school reading more strikingly displayed than in the circulation of school library books. Indiana provides a recent example. The Indiana legislature provided $4 million for K-8 schools to increase access to school library books. A part of that effort involved an assessment of the circulation of books. At the end of the year after the new books were added to school libraries, the average book circulation for K-5 students was 52.6, for K-6 students 47.2, and only 16.0 for students in grades 6-8.

Reading educators did not eliminate reading classes. Presumably, middle schools looked at what was important and provided time for various subjects. Many were convinced that reading courses could be eliminated because, while important, the content could easily be absorbed into the English curriculum and, because reading is so important in all subject areas, reading could be a part of all subjects rather than a separate course.

This was easier to do in reading than in other academic subjects. High schools offer courses in English, mathematics, science, and social studies. Any work done in reading is a part of the English program. As middle schools became trainers for high school areas of importance, such as athletics, band, other extracurricular activities, or foreign languages, and with no high school reading-department head as in the other areas, it was natural to defend time for English, mathematics, science, and social studies courses. The elementary reading heritage for grades 6-8 was subsumed into the secondary heritage where reading was thought to be the province of elementary schools.

In order to re-establish reading classes, middle schools need a vision of what would happen if they restored time for reading to the curriculum. The following expectations of middle school reading teachers should help school boards, superintendents, and middle-grades educators understand the importance of restoring time for reading classes.


  • Ensure that students know and use a wide range of skills and strategies to read.
  • Enable students to understand the meaning of what they read.
  • Help students respond critically and imaginatively to literary concepts and develop an appreciation of literature.
  • Encourage students to read a wide variety of materials for a range of purposes.
  • Assist students to set personal learning goals to improve reading.
  • Read aloud to students and provide book talks.
  • Provide time for students to visit the school library every week.
  • Urge parents to encourage their children to read independently.
  • Provide time and classroom materials to promote voluntary reading.
  • Serve as a reading role model by reading books, newspapers, and other printed materials.


  • Provide schoolwide incentive programs to encourage reading.
  • Promote summer reading.
  • Serve as a resource person to content-area teachers.
  • Encourage members of the faculty to be reading role models for students.
  • Provide leadership to help the school feature an environment where reading is valued, promoted, and encouraged.


  • Connect students with public libraries.
  • Assist community youth-service agencies that provide reading support to students.
  • Support community reading programs.


  • Participate in local, state, and national reading meetings.
  • Complete college and university coursework in developmental reading; analysis of reading ability; corrective, diagnostic, and remedial reading; and young-adolescent literature.
  • Read professional reading journals, such as The Reading Teacher.

Nowhere is the dramatic simplification of middle school reading more strikingly displayed than in the circulation of school library books.

The strategy to improve reading among young adolescents by eliminating reading classes was ill-conceived. Because we failed to back up our good intentions with effective, well-conceived alternatives, we have injured the very students the changes were designed to aid. What is worse, once time was given to other areas, positions (and thus teacher training) were reduced, and funding streams were diverted, it became difficult to restore these vital elements.

Movements offer no guarantees of success. The middle school movement offers much for students, but how can students be successful without strong reading skills? At every stage of a movement, there is power to help change happen, as in the elimination of reading classes, and a time to renew, once experience has shown the results of changes, both good and bad. It is time for renewal. It is a time for middle schools to restore reading classes and reading teachers, and thus provide time in the curriculum for systematic reading instruction.

Jack W. Humphrey is the director of the Middle Grades Reading Network at the University of Evansville in Evansville, Ind.

Vol. 19, Issue 25, Pages 43, 48

Published in Print: March 1, 2000, as Learning Not To Read
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