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Schools in the US are failing to develop passionate readers. Common teaching methods are doing more harm than good. Schools have a dichotomy. Teach a dry "worksheet" method that ensures state tests are passed and a love for reading destroyed. Or try something unorthodox, and see if students can pass state tests AND develop a love for reading.

I recently finished reading "Readicide" by Kelly Gallagher. Gallagher, a high school teacher, identifies ways schools prevent kids from developing a love for reading. He calls it readicide:

the systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools.

Because of readicide (and other factors), the US is adding adding more aliterates (people who can read but largely do not) every year.

Gallagher makes many "a-ha" points throughout the book, and I'd like to highlight some in this post. I'll begin with problems.


Problems

Consider the following:

Talk to any kindergarten teacher. Ask her about students’ attitudes in her classroom during reading time, and it is likely she will tell you about her students’ enthusiasm. Then, ask a fifth-grade teacher the same question. You’ll likely receive a mixed response.

What happens between kindergarten and 5th grade?

As teachers consider the decline of reading, most point to the usual suspects—poverty, lack of parental education, print-poor environments at home, second-language issues, the era of the hurried child, and other (and easier) entertainment options that lure students away from reading.

Gallagher believes that school is the perfect environment for students to develop a love for reading:

School is where I have the opportunity to discuss books with my students. At school, students are given both time and a place to read interesting books.

Kids do spend the majority of their childhood in school, so it does make sense that this environment has the best chance at developing passionate readers. But it also has the best chance at developing aliterates. In many public schools kids spend a lot of time preparing and taking multiple-choice tests. Reading becomes a mundane task of cramming information in order to pass the test. Gallagher believes tests are not the problem:

Multiple-choice exams are not the problem; the out-of-control, overemphasized, all-consuming teaching to these standardized tests has become the problem.

Unfortunately:

Many teachers have become so buried by the pressures of teaching to the test and by the overburdening number of standards that they have lost sight of the value of students reading newspapers, magazines, Internet articles, blogs, and other valuable sources of information.

Teaching to the test is a catalyst for readicide. And yet so many schools feel it's the only way to get the majority of kids equipped to pass state tests. Gallagher sites multiple studies that proved teaching to the test is not the only way:

Langer’s study, and the many others cited in this chapter, leads to an inescapable conclusion: if students are taught to read and write well, they will do fine on mandated reading tests. But if they are only taught to be test-takers, they will never learn to read and write well. A terrible price is paid when schools value the development of test-takers more than they value the development of readers.

More recently, in To Read or Not to Read, a study conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts (2007), researchers reached the same conclusion. Students who read the most for fun scored the highest on standardized reading tests

Is the short-term gain of getting a student to pass a test worth the price of readicide?

When teachers and students spend their energies preparing for shallow high-stakes assessments, deeper learning—the kind of thinking valued in colleges and the workforce—suffers. In this massive attempt to prepare all kids for college and the workforce, a readicide curriculum actually sets them back.

What is worse, teaching to the test involve overwhelming worksheets that squash any chance of developing a love for reading:

Strictly adhering to a 122-page curriculum guide will not make our students wiser about the world they are soon to inherit. Instead, it will achieve two things: It will (1) prepare them for the battery of state-mandated multiple-choice exams that loom in the spring and (2) ensure this classic novel is beaten to death. Worse, it will teach our students to hate reading, even when it comes to a great book like To Kill a Mockingbird.

As adult readers, we would not do any of these things. We would never buy a book at Barnes and Noble if it came with mandated chapter-by-chapter exams. We would never read a book so that we could tackle worksheets afterward. We would never begin a new read with the expressed goal of earning points.

Could it be that our students are turning off to great books because teachers are chopping the books up so much that achieving reading flow is impossible?

The worksheets are long because the list of standards seems never-ending. Gallagher has a term for this:

All Things in All Books Syndrome—the attempt to use one novel to pound dozens of different standards into the heads of our students.

Supplementing reading with worksheets turns the activity into an arduous task. Reading becomes a burden instead of an activity that can be enjoyed.

Ignoring the recreational side of reading is a recipe for readicide.

The first step in broadening our students’ reading windows comes when we recognize the three factors that serve as major contributors to readicide: 1. There is a dearth of interesting reading materials in our schools. 2. Many schools have removed novels and other longer challenging works to provide teachers and students with more test preparation time. 3. Students are not doing enough reading in school.

Outside of school, many of our students are not partaking in those critical activities that stretch and deepen their brains. Instead, they often gravitate to those behaviors that offer instant gratification.

Lack of a diverse set of texts also contributes to readicide:

However, when academic reading is the only kind of reading put on our students’ plates, readicide occurs. As much as I love Dickens and Shakespeare, I would turn off to reading if I didn’t have a balanced reading diet that included Scott Turow or Michael Connelly.

And what about the student's who are struggling with low test scores even though they are being taught to the test? They end up even worse off.

We give struggling students a treatment that does not work, and worse, a treatment that turns them off to reading. When they perform poorly on mandated exams, we respond by giving them an intensified dose of the ineffective treatment.

Scieszka warns of the reader’s death spiral, which goes like this: “It’s where kids aren’t reading and then are worse at reading because they aren’t reading, and then they read less because it is hard and they get worse, and then they see themselves as non-readers” (Strauss 2008, B2). Giving students “stupid” books and other high-interest reading material is the first line of defense against students’ falling into the reader’s death spiral.

Finally, to give context as to why this is an alarming and important problem:

Consider some of the findings found in To Read or Not to Read (National Public Radio 2007): The first generation of students raised in the midst of electronic media read less—and less well—than previous generations of students. Students who read less, read less well. Students who read less well, do less well in school. People who do less well in school do less well in the workplace and participate less in civic life. Internet reading produces shallower reading than book reading. When reading the Internet materials, there is more emphasis on reading headlines and blurbs. Deeper reading is less likely to occur. The reading proficiency of college graduates fell 23 percent in the past ten years. Less than one out of three college graduates reads at a “proficiency” level—what used to be considered a proficient high school level of reading. One of three high school students in the United States drops out. Fifty-five percent of people who read at a “below basic” level are unemployed. Half of the adults in this country do not read either to themselves or to their children.


Solutions

Now that we recognize how schools create an environment that fosters readicide, what do we do about it? How do we create passionate readers?

Three ingredients are foundational to building young readers: 1. They must have interesting books to read. Rather than waiting for students to discover the joys of the library, we must bring the books to the students. Students need to be surrounded by interesting books daily, not just on those occasional days when the teacher takes them to the library. 2. They must have time to read the books inside of school. Because many of our students leave school and head straight for soccer practice or to after-school jobs, or because many of students make a beeline to their video game consoles, it is imperative that some time be carved out of each school day for reading. 3. They must have a place to read their books. School is the only place where we can control what occurs in our students’ lives. If we are serious about developing readers, we have to take advantage of our time together by making school a place where reading occurs.

Gallagher consistently mentions the idea of getting kids access to more books:

Do students at your school have access to a wide range of interesting reading materials? Is providing access to interesting text a priority among your administration and faculty?

If we are to have any chance of developing a reading habit in our students, they must be immersed in a K-12 “book flood”—a term coined by researcher Warwick Elley (1991). Students must have ready access to a wide range of interesting reading materials.

If they are to have any chance of becoming lifelong readers, they will need what all readers need when they read: access to great books and large doses of uninterrupted time to read them.

Gallagher, a high school teacher, recognizes his responsibility in the matter:

My job is twofold: (1) to introduce my students to books that are a shade too hard for them and (2) to use my expertise to help them navigate these texts in a way that brings value to their reading experience.

Students need to be reintroduced to the notion that we read for enjoyment. To help my students achieve this goal, I have adopted a 50/50 approach in my classroom. To mix up the reading diet of my students, I want half of their reading to be academic, and I want half of their reading to be recreational.

Summer break is also a great time to foster a love for reading:

One research study suggests that summer reading loss can be prevented if students read four to five books over the summer.

Though we certainly want to develop academic readers, summer is not the time to do so. Instead, summer is the time when educators should be focused on developing recreational reading habits in young students.


I believe that reading (and writing) are the most important foundational pillars in education. Although we constantly hear the importance of Math & Science, if students cannot read or write well, they will struggle through life.

One big takeaway I had from "Readicide" was the influence a teacher can have on a child's attitude toward reading. Teachers like Gallagher, who put in the extra effort by exposing kids to a wide range of content (including articles, magazines, blog posts), minimize the number of worksheets that accompany books, and recognize the existence of readicide - unfortunately not all kids have such teachers.

But we live in an environment where technology can expose more students to teaching strategies Gallagher has adopted in his classroom. I believe that a big problem that technology can help solve is matching kids with books they would be excited to read. A tool that would help kids find books that are at their reading level, match their interests, capture their imaginations, and foster a love for reading.


Extra: Prior knowledge

The following quotes from "Readicide" focus on the importance of prior knowledge for readers. I wasn't sure where to put them in the post so I have grouped them here.

Reading consists of two factors: (1) being able to decode words on the page and (2) being able to connect the words you are reading with the prior knowledge you bring to the page.

Reading tests don’t just measure a student’s understanding of the words on the page; they also largely measure what a student brings to the page.

Kids without prior knowledge are at a disadvantage, regardless of reading ability.

When schools remove books in favor of practice tests, when schools eliminate subjects such as science and history, when schools drown students in test preparation, they are ensuring students will not become excellent readers. Instead of enlarging the background knowledge, quite the opposite occurs.