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News Flash: Kids Reading for Pleasure is Not The Problem

Warning:  This is a grumpy post.   But I can't help it.  I've been sitting on these thoughts since this article  stumbled across my twitter stream a couple of weeks ago and, frankly, I just can't sit on them any longer. In short, the article (which references a report by Renaissance Learning – the folks behind AR) implies a link between low SAT scores and high school students reading too many “low level” books. My hero and mega brain crush, Doug Johnson, recently shared the some of the same study with his colleagues and wrote about the impact of levels on student reading habits, which sparked some good discussion… but my main beef with this article is how it distracts from the REAL issues that are impacting student achievement in all areas – not just on the sacred SAT score.

First off, I guess I should say that I am a big believer in student choice when it comes to reading (and in all education, really). Even when I was a classroom teacher and felt pressured to make sure that every word my students consumed was “at or above” their determined reading level, my gut kept telling me it was wrong. Since then, and time and time again, my reader/teacher instincts have been proven right by research indicating that when students are allowed to read for pleasure, they excel at reading. As educators we know, (or at least I hope we do) that:

  • Kids who say they enjoy reading are more likely to score well on reading assessments than those students who identify themselves as nonreaders.

  • Regular reading outside of prescribed “reading for school” has also been linked with higher test scores.

  • Reading, more than any other skill, is associated with total academic success.

  • Choice is motivating - not just in reading, but in all aspects of both academic and non academic life.

Secondly, I should also mention that when it comes to reading instruction, the need for appropriate text (both academically and developmentally) is fundamental. However, there’s a huge difference between teaching someone to read and cultivating readers. Further, although it’s never clarified in either the article or the referenced study, it’s pretty clear that the vast majority of the offending "low level" books were NOT used for reading instruction.

All of that said, what really irks me about this article is that by devoting time to the notion that SAT scores have been damaged by the pleasure reading habits of students, we ignore the REAL issues that are actually impacting student achievement. We (meaning our students) would be better served by a dialogue that focused on things like:

  • Recent (and obscene) cuts to federal, state and local education budgets which have resulted in much bigger classes and far fewer resources.

  • Disparities in available technology (and other) resources between poor/affluent schools.

  • The recession and the resulting increase in students living in poverty coupled with...

  • The lack of training teachers receive in how to deal with the impact of poverty on student learning/development.

  • And, oh I don’t know, the virtual elimination of school library budgets/jobs in many districts – leaving kids with fewer options and less support in developing the very reading habits that have been proven time and time again to be essential in promoting student achievement.

Of course, slapping levels on books and forcing kids to read from their predetermined shelf is much easier than dealing with these (and other) REAL problems. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that people are interested in the reading lives of kids, but my students (and yours too, I suspect) deserve a more respectful dialogue that focuses on the issues that really matter.

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