Opinion
Reading & Literacy Commentary

Hitting the Books

By Peter Gow — April 14, 2006 7 min read

Experts from the White House to the Ivory Tower agree—and real teachers of real children concur—that reading is the most important skill young students must acquire. Whether they learn through whole language or phonics, children must leave the elementary grades competent in the art of decoding written text in their native language. Even mathematics and science, the darlings of international comparisons (perhaps because the subject matter can stand up to cross-cultural comparison better than the humanities), are deemed less essential than reading as primary-grade subject matter.

Statistics on literacy paint a troubling portrait of Americans’ reading ability; the fact that numbers vary is an indication of a broad gray area of semiliteracy, a gray area that manifests itself in a significant chunk of our population that does not read with competence or, more important, confidence and enjoyment. Like economic wealth, literacy in America is unevenly distributed, with children in affluent communities outreading their poorer peers. At the highest end of the reading-competence spectrum are kids whose parents are both economically successful and themselves readers—academics, knowledge professionals, executives in fields that require intensive language skills and creativity.

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Children who both can and do read—nonstop, with pleasure, curiosity, and skill—occupy a strange place in our national pantheon. Because their endeavors tend to be solitary and to focus on inward things, these young superreaders are often regarded by peers as nothing but oddities—in the cruelest construction, geeks or nerds. They may be the teachers’ pets, but few of their classmates are working to emulate them the way they might a star athlete, a trendy dresser, or the first kids in their elementary school to experiment with those risky behaviors that media culture represents as ultracool.

It’s time we turned our national attention to turning every child into a reader, to creating conditions within our schools to support, encourage, and reward every student in becoming a fully competent, fully engaged reader. It is a truism that the most academically successful children, whether success is measured by grades or standardized-test scores, are those who read. All the SAT prep courses in the world cannot bring a nonreading student to the scoring level of voracious, experienced readers whose eyes have passed over tens of thousands of pages because they enjoy, even crave, reading. To whatever degree access to the most exciting experiences in higher education is truly meritocratic, in the end, it is these skilled readers, the oft-labeled geeks, who will reap the rewards. A high degree of individual and collective literacy is essential in a world that communicates its ideas, its concerns, its data, and its solutions primarily in writing.

I have a simple proposal for bringing about a massive improvement in our national literacy level. I believe that an entire school year in the elementary grades—4th grade, a year I have chosen for reasons I will discuss below—should be devoted exclusively to reading. Formal coursework in mathematics, science, the arts, and even grammar and spelling would be suspended. These classrooms would become nothing but centers of active reading—silent and oral—from September to June.

I have chosen 4th grade because it is the year by which the vast majority of children have mastered the basic skills of decoding written text. For struggling students, by that year interventions are largely focused on improving performance in “real” reading—not just of individual words but of narratives with meaning. By 4th grade, a degree of comprehension and fluency, even within a broad range, is a reasonable goal.

Furthermore, the reading material available to 4th graders is wonderfully varied, from level 1 and 2 readers for weaker students, to “age appropriate” chapter books, to Harry Potter novels for the most facile. On top of this, 4th graders combine intellectual competence with an unjaded curiosity about the world that makes them among the most eager of learners.

In my ideal school, every 4th grade classroom would be a giant library, with shelves of books and lots of comfortable, well-lighted places for students to flop down and read. From the time students arrived in the morning until the end of the day, the primary work of each kid would be to read, with suitable break time for recess, physical activity (I am not crazy enough to suggest that PE classes should be suspended for 9- and 10-year-olds), and some social interaction.

Teachers would essentially be transformed into individual reading coaches and personal librarians, with plenty of opportunities to develop and implement creative strategies for managing and maximizing each student’s reading. They would also have expanded opportunities to implement classwide reading strategies that are now often shortchanged in the name of either coverage or test preparation. Part of each day might be devoted to literature circles, part to teacher read-alouds (without guilt!), part to paired student read-alouds, and part to general discussions of a specific text read by all students. They could prepare and share critical responses on their reading in the form of collages, skits, debates, personal logs and journals, and traditional book reports.

The notion that classrooms in every kind of school can be transformed into reading centers is itself a little nutty.

The ultimate goal would be to create engaged readers who understand that reading, so central to their learning in this pivotal year, is indeed fundamental. To this end, the class library would hold a wide variety of books on many subjects, written at many levels. The great task, and great challenge, for teachers would be to develop expertise in helping each student find reading material that interests and challenges him or her. Quantity would matter more than quality, although the class library should contain the very best of contemporary elementary grade and young adult writing—nonfiction as well as fiction, periodicals as well as books—and “classics” from many traditions. I’d leave the actual selection to professionals in those fields. But I would make certain that the reading matter included plenty of books and magazines focused on the sciences, the arts, and the application of quantitative reasoning.

By the end of the year, each student will have read dozens, perhaps scores of books; the ablest readers might be into the hundreds. At a bare minimum, the weakest students, bolstered by continuing remedial instruction as well as extensive experience with material that has gently pushed them forward while providing the satisfaction of titles ticked off in a personal log, will be reading at grade level. But beyond this, each student independently will be able to find reading material that is fully comprehensible and enjoyable. Students will know that they can survive being “stretched” by a difficult text or passage. They will have developed true tastes in reading and be able to articulate them. For these kids, the written word will have become a powerful, adaptable tool—a tool that is emphatically theirs—for gathering information, communicating ideas, and finding personal satisfaction and pleasure.

Of course, this idea will smack of lunacy to many. To allow instruction in other disciplines to lapse might seem criminal. To assume that students with varied levels of skill, including those we classify as learning disabled in the areas of reading and language, can benefit equally from a year focused on reading alone might seem hopelessly idealistic. The notion that classrooms in every kind of school can be transformed into reading centers (not centers for reading instruction, but for reading itself) is itself a little nutty. And that 4th grade teachers can become personal reading coaches-cum-librarians—well, the professional development challenges are not small.

But is there a leader in American education, industry, law, medicine, science, or government who would not support the goal of this proposal? We must educate the children of our nation not merely to the level of being minimally capable decoders of written text—as measured in a meager way by the testing required under No Child Left Behind—but to become confident, eager readers, fully capable of making the fullest sense of written words and ideas in many contexts.

Children who pass through the system I envision would all be prepared to become the knowledge workers that our nation, and our planet, will need if we are to survive and thrive into future generations.

I challenge any school, anywhere, to give this a try.

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