In the 1880s, children read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. If you look at the Lexile score, this book is considered to be the grade level equivalent of 11th-12th grade. However, if you consider the fact that children read this in schools in the 19th century, you must understand that children only attended school through eighth grade, often only through fifth grade, yet these children were reading this book. Today, this book is read in high school and even college.
I can tell you without a doubt that even some of my college classmates would have stumbled over Dickens’ work. Today, we must consider that even the New York Times is only written at an eight grade level.
What has happened to American education? Is our country truly more literate, or are we “dumbing everything down” to suit a low baseline set by public schooling and thus making it seem that we are more successful in this area than we truly are? I think this is the case and to be frank, I believe without a doubt that our current reading pedagogy is to blame. Children are not learning to read as a means to an end, as in wanting to gain information for an authentic task or to take pleasure from something. They are forced to read as a job in and of itself….and this is completely unnatural.
Children need to see reading as a tool to learning how to do something, or more about something they are interested in. Then, reading makes sense.
Attaching an arbitrary grade, or an external reward to reading does nothing to create the motivation to read and for many children, it crushes their desire to read at all beyond what they are forced to read in school.
One of the worst things the public school system ever allowed within its walls is the Accelerated Reader Program and I think we would do right by our children to throw it out, along with the Lexile measurements for books. I cannot tell you how many students I met who carried around thick, “high level” books and hid the books that they could actually read, just to avoid being made fun of by their peers. These stupid and pointless programs are the culprit. Not only do they label books and readers, they limit choice, and they increase the “us verses them” mentality that is already prevalent in the schools.
You may think that the limitations are only on students who read at lower levels, but this is not true. It also limits children who are competent readers. These students may not want to read a book at a lower level, even if he or she might enjoy it, because 1. They want to get more points per book so they don’t have to read as many, or 2. They would be “embarrassed to be caught reading a lower level book.” Students also avoid longer books in favor of shorter books they can read quickly, just to get it done.
It is sad to me that schools use these programs. I remember moving to a school that had this program and it had a terrible overall reading environment, because reading wasn’t actually emphasized: points, rewards, and levels were!
As a parent and former teacher of Language Arts, my advice to parents is to avoid schools that utilize these programs. Shop around (yes, you can do that!) or homeschool. Approach the school board and ask that the program be eliminated entirely. Let them know that your child will not be forced to participate.
The key to getting kids read is not in extrinsic rewards, (read: bribes) Lexile levels, grade-dependent reading, or any other ridiculous system. It’s in READING. It’s in schools and families creating environments where everyone is reading. It’s in sharing with a class, a book that makes you laugh or cry. Picture books are GREAT for this and YES, they should be read to eighth graders and high schoolers. Children should also be allowed time with their own books. Spend at least a full class period a week simply letting them read. (No, I’m not kidding…no, this will not hurt the worthless annual test scores) You read your own book as well. Let the kids spread out on the floor, provide floor pillows for them, or cushions to sit on. Let them switch books as needed and do not question this. Team up with your librarian and use the library. If you have a child who has trouble reading, have audio books available, but be sure these are available to all of your students so that no one is singled out. Let them read magazines, flyers, comics, nonfiction, how-tos, graphic novels, novels, or whatever the heck they want to read and encourage them. Show interest in what they’re reading. Let them share what they’re reading with the class and why they like it, if they want to.
Don’t fall into the trap of forcing them to give a book report. This will kill the spirit and crush the entire point. Trust them. Tell them you trust them and don’t say it unless you mean it. Trust them to read and they will read. If you have a student who continues to show no interest, or tell you he hates reading, let him know that you will help him find a book that interests him. Tell him: “We’ve just not found the right book yet, but I promise you, we will and I’ll help you.” And mean every damn word. Ask him about his interests and find books and titles and magazines that might interest him. Give him options and let him choose what he’d like to check out.
I had a student who absolutely hated reading, but he was a brilliant farmer. He loved everything outdoorsy. In my class, I read aloud to my students every single day, even if only for five minutes. One day, I picked up the book My Side of the Mountain and after class, this student asked if he could borrow it. I was quite surprised, because he was emphatically against reading, but I happily loaned him the book, making a point not to make a big deal about it. He read the entire thing and then found another book on his own to read. That Christmas, his granddad gave him a book as a gift and he was reading that as well.
Today, as I watch my six-year old daughter read, I have further proof that when we don’t force it and when we share stories with them, and when we read all sorts of reading material to and with them, they naturally grow more interested in reading. This year, my daughter set a goal to read fifteen chapter books on her own. She just started trying to read on her own in May, so not even a year a go and already she’s feeling confident enough to attempt to read fifteen books on her own. She’s almost through her fourth book, already.
Don’t force children to read books they aren’t interested in. It will do nothing but turn them against it. Plus, it doesn’t teach them what we do as adults. I mean, I have started plenty of crappy, boring books that I’ve not finished, because let’s be honest: there are far too many awesome books out there to waste time on a boring one! Empower them to take control of their reading. Let them discover that books can be fun, can provide valuable information, and can help them see different perspectives, and yes, sometimes they can be downright dull and that’s okay. Basically, let them play with books…the learning happens there. Then, when they need to pick up a tough read for a particular task, they have confidence that they can glean from its pages the information they need.
To encourage a love of reading, never insert yourself between a child and any book, unless they invite you to. Never try to fool a child with your gadgets and shiny stars and fancy rewards. They will be on the defensive immediately and they will turn away from even the most amazing book.
Mark my word.
It’s simple, really: trust them and read to and with them every single day.
Want 18 more reasons to avoid AR than what I’ve written?
Visit: “The 18 Reasons Not to Use Accelerated Reader” by Mark Pennington MA Reading Specialist here.