Rescue the Wonder of the Printed Page

Our Kids Are Smarter Than The Books We Give Them

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I visit schools across the nation and, again and again, they strike me as anti-reading places. Many of the teachers I see, with the best of intentions, seem actually to be keeping children from reading. I was speaking to a group of reading instructors in Virginia, and that was the message I brought them. Some in my audience looked as if they were searching for rotten tomatoes. If they'd found any, they might have pelted me.

But I've spent a lot of time in classrooms, and I'll stick with that statement.

It's not that I am unimpressed with the teachers I see. Quite the contrary. Wherever I am, I find terrific teachers. Intelligent men and women dedicated to their profession. Teachers who spend their own money on classroom supplies. Teachers who care with all their beings about their students and about education and who usually are appreciated, deservedly, by parents and students.

I visit schools across the nation and, again and again, they strike me as anti-reading places.

Yet, something is wrong. There's a kind of reverse synergy at work in our schools. The total is less than the sum of the parts. And teachers, as well as children, are victims.

As to reading? We've had years and years of reading initiatives. Our schools are obsessed with reading scores. We've neglected most of the other subjects to concentrate on reading drills. And what has it gotten us? Third grade reading scores have inched up, but everyone in the field knows that it is in 4th grade that solid subject matter is introduced and many of our youngsters can't handle that key to success in the Information Age.

The University of Virginia educator E.D. Hirsch Jr. says that the 4th grade reading gap between rich and poor, which widens in each succeeding grade, "represents the single greatest failure in American public schooling and the most disheartening affront to the ideal of democratic education." This year, for the third straight year, nearly half of New York's 8th graders failed a state reading exam.

This Commentary was selected for inclusion in The Last Word: The Best Commentary and Controversy in American Education, published in 2007. Get more information on the book from the publisher.

What we aren't doing in schools is exciting children with the printed page and the wonders it can offer. We continue to present reading as a boring school subject that can't compete with television. Yet, as any reader will tell you, it is TV that is ultimately boring, and books are what can transport you to other worlds.

What's wrong? Some educators blame kids. Some blame today's families. Some say it's societal values. But spend time in many of today's schools and I think you'll see what I see: practices that inhibit subject-matter reading. Why?

Partly it's curricula overloaded with trivia. Partly it's an anti- intellectual bias that pervades many schools of education, the very places we should find support for thinking subjects. And that leads to numbing overdoses of methodology at the expense of "real" subjects. In my home state of Colorado, it has led the legislature to decree that majors in chemistry, classics, Spanish, or fine arts are not acceptable for an elementary school teacher.

Perhaps even more important, we've let manufactured commercial textbooks determine school curricula and keep real books from children. If we want our children to read, we need to give them books worth reading. Check out your child's textbooks. The graphics may be impressive, but see if you can find a book that is a page-turner. Very few are written, as most good books are, by a single author.

School reading is still mostly taught from readers with disconnected stories and excerpts chopped from books that children could easily read whole. And a disproportionate amount of time is spent on reading skills, rather than on reading itself. That approach hasn't worked.

Why not all of Wind in the Willows, rather than the out-of-context chapter found in one text I've seen? Is it habit, or sales pressure from the multibillion-dollar textbook industry? Whatever, it doesn't make much sense. Kids are smarter than the books we give them.

There are wonderful exceptions. In a 2nd grade classroom that I visited in Virginia a few years ago, each child was reading a real book and keeping a journal of his or her reading. Quietly, one by one, boys and girls went to the teacher's desk for private reading sessions. The children in that class—each reading at his or her level—were averaging a book a week.

We're losing young minds. Too many of our youngsters are functionally illiterate.

That same teacher divided her class into traditional groups for a reading-skills instruction period—pointedly separate from the very popular and productive reading time. In oral book reports, children shared their books with their classmates.

These kids were mostly reading library books, not disjointed textbooks. Their reading scores, in an urban public school, were well above average. Even better, they were learning that authors write books so that one chapter logically follows another. And that good books have underlying themes and ideas.

I admit to a vested interest in this subject. I'm the author of a narrative history of the United States being used in schools across the country. I wrote those books to teach reading, as well as history and civic values and geography and all the important things the subject can address.

But what happens to those books in some schools? I see teachers extracting chapters, or sometimes even paragraphs. They assume kids can't read books—even small books—and, without meaning to, they encourage snippet reading. Many do something else: They summarize the reading for their students, thus eliminating any need for their students to actually read for themselves. It leads to something the experts call "fake" reading.

It's all done with good intentions, and often a sense of desperation. The kids don't read well, so we have to help them along, and pretty soon the teacher is doing all the work.

There was a time when it did not matter much if you were an efficient reader or not; today it does.

I know, firsthand, that you can teach reading using challenging, action-filled nonfiction and that it resonates with today's information-hungry kids.

We're losing young minds. Too many of our youngsters are functionally illiterate, too many others can't do Information Age reading. In the school world, reading and literature are still seen, most often, as ventures into fiction. But today's adult reading is mostly nonfiction. And reading nonfiction takes very different skills than reading fiction.

Which makes "content" subjects, like history and science, ideal for teaching 21st-century reading. With them, you get a double whammy: You teach kids subject matter, and you teach them to read analytically. It's time to recognize the importance of critical reading, not abandon those subjects that rely on it.

Few subjects resonate with children as good history does—it's the story of real people and real adventures—but that has been lost in the dull litany of facts that is standard social studies fare. The result is a historically illiterate population, along with generations of poor readers.

Given the tedious, committee-written commercial textbooks, it's no surprise that history has been neglected as a way to teach reading. That it includes great stories—ones that just happen to be true—is rarely considered.

I know, firsthand, that you can teach reading using challenging, action-filled nonfiction—especially history told as a narrative, and science presented as a quest—and that it resonates with today's information-hungry kids. But that concept isn't recognized in many schools. It's time to reconsider. The way we've been doing it hasn't worked.

Vol. 21, Issue 12, Pages 33, 44

Published in Print: November 21, 2001, as Rescue the Wonder Of the Printed Page
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