What Kids Are – Or Aren’t – Reading

Posted: June 12, 2013 in Uncategorized
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This article from NPR bugged me, and it took me a little bit to figure out exactly why. I actually agree with a lot of it: Reading begets reading. We need more classics in the classroom. I agree that general school standards have dropped, and that Americans are not as literate as we were in the past. (When reading Destiny of the Republic, I couldn’t stop marveling how eloquent the excerpts of documents and speeches from the 1800s were).  Going by the comments, the article annoyed a lot of my colleagues as well. Just reading through the piece made me not want to read, and I had just a minute before been contemplating putting together a personal Summer Reading list.

One of my problems is the standards over which people are clutching their pearls. “Vocabulary and sentence complexity,” which Accelerated Reader uses to rank books, are not the only factors in making a novel complex. According to Accelerated Reader, Hank the Cowdog has a book level of 4.5. Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets has a 4.7. Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises has a level of 4.4. Length is also a factor for Accelerated Reader, and just as superficial.

The value of a book is not just in its vocabulary, but the content, the characters, and the way it’s structured, all of which are harder to create metrics for. What character resonates with a particular child cannot be measured, but will certainly impact that child more than a book forced on them with a higher reading level, or a longer book. I can think of a long list of books that I love dearly – classic and modern – that when I’ve extolled their virtues to someone else, I’ve heard “Ugh, I hated that!” in reply. It doesn’t matter how well the books were written, what arching, wonderful themes they had, how inspiring their characters were and how they felt like real people – if the person didn’t like the book, those values didn’t land. Or at least not as strongly.

Which leads me to my next nitpick: I also disagree that out of school reading should be contrary to someone’s taste. Why shouldn’t students read science fiction or fantasy for fun, if that’s what they like? Just recently, I was listening to a podcast with new author Justin Lee, in which he talked about rediscovering as an adult that he was a reader. For him, “reading” became connected to “forced to read,” especially forced to things that he didn’t care for. Most students leave school with this lingering distaste for reading: even I had it, and I read widely for pleasure all through school and college. The school reading experience also transfers for some people to a feeling the “have” to finish a book once they’ve started, even if they hate it. That mentality adds to the disinclination to pick up a book in the first place.

While a solid knowledge of classical literature and concepts is essential to a rounded education, and I think children should be required to read complex and challenging books, I also think more teachers should have self-guided reading lists and stress the option of moving to another book if you don’t care for the one you are reading. Allowing students the autonomy to choose things that appeal to them will help create readers over the long-term.

Reading shouldn’t be a chore. Some books might be, but reading is fun, absorbing, thought-provoking and healthy. If more children find  that out, we’ll have more readers.

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Comments
  1. […] Infographic of the day: GoodReads tries to figure out what makes you put down a book halfway through. (A practice I am in favor of.) […]

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