Do Reading Programs Undermine Reading?

Do Reading Programs Undermine Reading?

Well, yes. Some of them do.

Most of us, as educators,  have an idealized image of how children should read.  We want fluency, comprehension, analytical ability, and of course we want them to read for pleasure — for the sheer enjoyment of falling into another world and feeling what the characters feel, seeing what they see for a little while.  If you’re a nerdy English teacher like me, you want them to emerge from reading with a catalogue of destinations that will stay with them for life:  Narnia, Hogwarts, the Shire, Tupelo Landing, Willow Falls,  the Big Top Shopping Mall Circus, Pan-Em,  Midnight Gulch, and so on. You probably also want them to read for information, because they are interested in a wide range of topics and want to know more about lemurs, or jet engines, or Ebola, or arctic exploration, or coral reefs. And you are likely brought up short by students who say “Reading sucks.”

Why would this be?  It lies in the proliferation of reading programs, many of which don’t utilize actual books written by authors of quality. Instead, they rely on leveled readers developed solely for the purpose of teaching reading, and/or excerpts of books designed to elicit comprehension answers to demonstrate a student’s ability level. This piecemeal approach is the basis for a fascinating discussion from the Cult of Pedagogy podcast called “How to Stop Killing the Love of Reading.

The guest, Pernille Ripp, author of Passionate Readers, makes a number of excellent points about the state of reading programs in many schools today. One of the most interesting was her commentary on a reading program that two of my children participated in in 3rd grade, which relied heavily on computerized comprehension quizzes after each book they read — quizzes which, Ripp points out, the authors of those books were unable to pass. How, Ripp asks, are such quizzes “teaching” reading?  Here’s a quick rundown of some of her other points:

  • Some “research-based” reading programs measure “improvement” in reading using tests they themselves have created.  This is a little like the tobacco companies funding research that then determines tobacco is good for you. It is at least suspicious, and at worst unethical.
  • Other programs implement their computer-based program along with increased reading time in class and increased books in the classroom and then point to their program as the reason for improved performance in reading.  In actuality, there are too many confounders here:  more sustained silent reading and greater access to books in the classroom are proven to improve reading performance and so muddy the waters of what effect, if any, the program is having on scores.
  • Many, many programs use leveled readers which are not based on authentic literature but are constructed for the reading company so that they conform to the given levels.  Not surprisingly, they don’t produce the engagement that good, quality literature does.
  • Too often, students’ ability to read is measured by their ability to write.  Meaningful writing is good, but not if the quality of the writing is used to ascertain whether a child comprehended what s/he read.  Frequently children can explain verbally what they read and discuss characterization and other literary aspects very well but their writing skills are not anywhere near the same level.  Writing should be used to grade writing ability; reading ability needs to be assessed in ways appropriate to what the child can do.

Very near and dear to my heart was her use of picture books with older students  — books like I Never Knew Your Name which deals with teen suicide, and Bird, which deals with drug addiction. Books such as these can bring authentic, high-quality literature to reluctant and struggling readers. Also worthy of an amen was her realization as a teacher that she needed to be reading children’s and teen literature herself in order to be sure she was both including quality texts and capable of pointing students toward those texts as they self-selected their reading material.

There is much food for thought here, and for reflection on best practices and what Ripp calls “Common Sense Reading.”  Find the Cult of Pedagogy podcast on Apple Podcasts, Podbean, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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