Standards Opinion

Understanding Students With Broken Relationships to Reading

By Ariel Sacks — January 17, 2017 4 min read
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One factor in our students’ reading abilities that often gets glossed over is their past experience with reading--those experiences that drew them toward reading and those that have repelled them. Teachers know that our work with readers depends as much on their reading attitudes as their reading skills, and that these two pieces are intertwined.

I think of my own daughter, who is not yet two. Each night I read to her before bed, in an enjoyable and loving ritual that many young children experience. I get to see her relationship with books, words and stories develop right before my eyes.

Although I’m aware of the body of research that shows the importance of early literacy experiences, I truly didn’t realize how much the simple act of reading together would draw my daughter to books. She “reads” them herself at other times, turning pages, naming items in pictures and speaking a combination of words and babble. I’ve never directed her to do this, but books are a part of her world and her repertoire of things to explore, and babies and toddlers explore what’s around them. Also, books have a positive connotation for her. Through her experiences, she’s connected reading with love. Take away this association, and she might not be especially drawn to books.

We influence our children so much through the activities we do with them with love. My husband has a lot of music recording equipment in the house. Our daughter explores instruments, buttons and cables alongside him while he works, and she’s learned to associate these items with love, too. I had friends growing up who, unlike me, played basketball with a parent every evening. They loved basketball and were so much better at it than I was when we played in school. Even though I was coordinated enough and willing to learn, I just did not have much experience. I remember that it was kind of embarrassing not to be able to play well, and I never really got past that feeling.

Many of our struggling readers did not grow up with a consistent reading ritual at home; instead, they were exposed to books mostly in school. What was that context like for them? Was it an enjoyable, affirming first experience? Or was it embarrassing, like me with basketball? Was the focus on their deficits or their interests? Were they able to connect to the enjoyable experience of a good story?

It would be easy to place blame on families who don’t develop their children’s reading-- but I see no reason that school-age children are too old to be introduced to reading for the first time. However, the quality of that introduction and the ensuing reading relationship will be “make or break,” so to speak. I mean, I don’t think anyone wants to stare at a bunch of symbols on paper unless they associate this with some kind of pleasurable experience that is answering their needs, the way reading with a parent is for very young children. The responsibility is on us to be guides AND participants in developing our students’ positive experiences of reading, no matter the age.

I’m concerned with the trend in public schools today, NYC included, of rushing students to read. Those who enter kindergarten without letter recognition are labelled “behind,” and children must now read before first grade or be considered “at risk.”

What happens to a child who has had little experience reading before September of kindergarten, and is suddenly judged a failure? How does he or she experience reading in that scenario? Is she invited, gradually, into one of the most exciting and powerful tools of her life--or is she isolated and repelled by experiences that she can’t connect to? I’m sure practices vary widely across classrooms and schools; but I also know, that by middle school, many students have floundered as readers despite years of reading interventions.

I just wonder, what would happen if we gave students who are “behind” in their reading--and even older struggling readers--a solid year of organic exploration of reading with a caring adult, without being rushed toward objectives or forced to practice particular strategies? Here’s one example of such a thing, from veteran Oklahoma teacher, Claudia Swisher, who created an elective course called Reading 4 Pleasure for high school students. In my own classroom, I alternate between giving students choice in their reading and student-driven whole novel studies. Teacher-author Pernille Ripp shares many wonderful resources on “shaping reader identity” here.

Too many children are moving through the grades with broken relationships to reading. I don’t think there’s just one way to change this, but I know we would draw many more students toward books if our main goal was to help them have lots of positive experiences with reading. I think the rest follows much more easily from there.

The opinions expressed in Teaching for the Whole Story 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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