Reading Journeys: No Single Path
Reading should not be presented to children as a chore or duty. It should be offered to them as a precious gift. —Kate DiCamillo
(originally published in Tumbleweeds, Summer 2015)
“Mom, I’m stupid.”
Wyatt slumped over a book at the kitchen table. Homework had become an ever-increasing experience in tears over the past year for my 7-year-old son in second grade. He wasn’t reading. He didn’t follow what research said he would do. Raised in a home filled with books, read to aloud for hours every day since birth, Wyatt should’ve been reading by now, according to all the research studies. Yet he wasn’t.
I didn’t understand what was happening, and the months slipped by. I talked with my mom, a professor in education and expert in literacy, for hours, trying to figure out what was happening. Nothing fit. What I did know is research that showed the most effective way to create a reader is pleasure reading and a balanced approach to instruction, which weaves together both a sight word and phonetic approach.
Wyatt bombed at standardized tests and prescribed reading programs. Yet we spent three hours a day reading aloud. He inhaled the Redwall Series, Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings aloud. He LOVED to be read to. The mystery of what was happening grew. The school began talking about “reading intervention” programs. Everything in my 20 years of education and my maternal intuition told me that a prescribed reading program would extinguish any hope we might have of Wyatt not only learning to read, but loving to read.
I did something I never thought I’d do. I’ve spent 20 years working for and promoting education. I pulled Wyatt out of school in January of second grade—to read.
I wasn’t sure what we’d do, but I did know what we would not do. We would not test. We would not use a deadening prescribed reading curriculum that leaches away any relevancy or love of reading away through lack of context and story. Wyatt would never be forced to read aloud, in private or public. We would only read what Wyatt wanted to read.
Which brings us to my own paradigm shift. Mom, the professor in education, said to me over the phone one day, “He can’t read any of the books you read to him. They’re too hard.” I scanned our shelves of Tolkien, Jacques, the classics. Wyatt had the verbal vocabulary of a doctoral student of literature, but within these books there was nothing he could read. “I’m sending him the Captain Underpants series,” she said. My own literary snobbery reared its ugly head. “Mom, you can’t! The primary vocabulary word in those books is ‘poop!’”
“I can. There will be a box addressed to Wyatt. When it arrives, you are not allowed to touch it.”
The box arrived. I gave it to Wyatt. He pulled the series of graphic novels for young children, the primary literary focus of which is the body sounds and functions that so delight young boys the world over. Filled with drawings, these books convey story even for a young reader who can’t read every word. I hesitantly began to read them aloud to Wyatt. He giggled, thrilled in the inappropriateness, pointed at the underwear – and delighted in reading. I left the books scattered randomly around the house, where he would find them.
Wyatt began to read. Captain Underpants, the weird little dude running around in his tighty-whiteys, did what no prescribed reading program or standardized test ever could: he drew Wyatt into the world of reading for the sheer pleasure of story. I heard him giggling as he read Captain Underpants’ mantra of success, “Tra-la-laaaa!”
Wyatt went back to school the fall of third grade. He’s been reading wheelbarrows full of books ever since. He soon made the leap from Captain Underpants to Harry Potter to J.R.R. Tolkien on his own, and I’ve long since lost track of the tomes of adventures, places, emotions and ideas that have become a part of him through reading. He is now a freshman at Adams State University in Colorado and continues a voracious reader.
Which brings us to the prescribed curriculum and standardized testing so rampant in today’s schools. Research study after research study demonstrates the most effective way to create fluent readers is self-selected reading (pleasure reading!) and a balanced approach to literacy instruction.
Literacy occurs best for both kinds of learners, when it is relevant and meaningful. Relevancy, meaning and critical-thinking tend to be lost in prescribed reading programs. Research demonstrates again and again that self-selected reading (pleasure reading!) is one of the most effective ways to develop literacy. We don’t need more tests, we need more libraries and time every day in schools for students to read for pleasure. Let kids choose what they want to read and create time for them to do so.
This research includes children in this country whose primary language is one other than English. Research demonstrates that the most effective way for English Language Learners to learn to read in English is let them read what they want in whatever language they choose. Literacy in an additional language is based in literacy in the primary language. Want Spanish-speaking kids to read well in English? Let them read as much as possible in Spanish. We only learn to read once. Then, we apply that to whatever language we’re reading.
The tsumani wave of standardized testing doing its best to destroy public education in recent years is based not in pedagogy but in profit. No research proves its efficacy. None. This wave of standardized testing, dressed up in finery of “accountability” and “standards” (who could possibly be against those?) is founded in profit for testing and publishing companies. Requirement of standardized tests, their accompanying study materials, and prescribed curricula have turned public education into a multi-billion dollar industry. The results include not only an exponential loss of time to learn. The results include not only an exponential loss of time to learn, there is the loss of the humanity of all that creates a depth of learning, a reveling in ideas for their sheer brilliance and potential, an opening of the world.
As a professor in the field of teacher education, I see the effect that standardized testing has on teachers and children. Third grade teacher, Missy, said, “My students barely survived the Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBA). I was prepared to grit my teeth and bear it. I was not prepared to be in tears within an hour of starting the test. One little third grader, who has been struggling to write this year, and who was doing better with gentle encouragement and clustering, broke into tears and was literally sitting in front of her computer crying within 40 minutes of starting the test. Crying Sobbing.”
I wish I could give teachers like her a solution. Instead, I tell them that standardized testing doesn’t equate with learning; standardized testing often doesn’t even authentically evaluate knowledge. What it does do is detract from exponential amounts of quality instructional time that students could be exploring, learning, experimenting, and growing. The most powerful dynamics in education are not found on Scantron forms. They are found in the hearts of teachers and students.
I thank the stars that the madness of the Third-Grade Reading Retention Bill did not pass the state legislature in the 2015 session. The average age around the world when children learn to read is 8 years old, when their brains have reached an age-appropriate level of development. There is no single path to reading. There are kids who learn to read at 3 years old and others who learn at 9. The beauty and mystery of the human brain is there is no single time that this occurs in all children.
I think of all of the little Wyatts in schools today, all of the boys and girls drowned in standardized tests and prescribed curriculum and content, rather than lifted to the world of thinking, of reading, of ideas, of exploration, of brilliance. All of the children telling their parents, “I’m stupid,” based on a test unfounded in pedagogy. I think of all of the teachers who enter the profession for the love of ideas, content and children, whose hands are now bound, their expertise questioned and stripped away, by standardized and prescribed curriculum created not by experts in education who understand pedagogy, but by business profiteers.
What I know in my heart is that had I left Wyatt in school, subjected him to a prescribed reading program, he never, ever would have known the magic of reading. Yes, he would have learned to read technically, to decode, and would have struggled the next steps of the trail, but he never would have stood at the top of the mountain to drink in the vast view from its peak. He would not have become a reader.
There are very real human costs to education for profit. Families choose to leave public education to give their children an educational experienced focused on ideas and learning, rather than testing and rote memorization. This creates inequity in education, as it is only families with financial means able to avoid standardized testing. This should not have to be a choice. The poorest among us endure the most standardized testing and prescribed curriculum.
It will take us at least a generation to recover from this testing and profit-making era of education—a generation of individual children and teachers left to pay the price.
What can we as parents do? Fill our homes with books, leave them scattered everywhere around the house, let our kids read what they want (even if the main vocabulary word is “poop”), go to libraries, talk about the story of books (not the sounds of syllables), and read our own books in front of them and talk about what we love about the book. Keep the power and the magic of reading alive.
Reading and learning are meant to be meaningful ways to transcend time and space, to grow and explore, to travel anywhere anytime, to be reminded that, no matter our circumstances, we are human and walk a shared path. Reading opens the world of ideas, emotions, events and experiences. To reduce reading to a prescribed curriculum, rote memorization, or an experience in shame when one is forced to read aloud or made to feel less-than another, is a travesty and betrays all that reading is meant to create and encompass. How marvelous that we learn to read best by reading what we want! Dav Pilkey, author of Captain Underpants wrote, “If you read, you can explore and experience all kinds of new and exciting things.”
That is what reading and school should be all about.
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Krashen, S. (2004). The Power of Reading: Insights from Research, Libraries Unlimited.
For more information and research on pleasure reading see: http://www.sdkrashen.com/
Freeman, D. & Freeman, Y. (2011). Between Worlds: Access to Second Language
Acquisition, Heinemann, NY, NY.
Wink, J. & Wink, D. (2004). Teaching Passionately: What’s Love To Do With It?,
Pearson, NY, NY.
Information on standardized testing: Susan Ohanian: www.susanohanian.org