Saturday, July 09, 2011

READICIDE: a personal review

Kelly Gallagher hits the nail squarely on the head---many, many times in this excellent expose of why public school kids keep getting worse and worse at reading. Yes, electronics ARE partly to blame, but there's more.

I worked in a U.S. Department of Education-funded "think tank"-type setting in the early 90s. Whole Language, literature-rich, reading-across-the-curriculum were all buzz words. Today the buzz is all test scores. The two movements have crashed into each other with lethal results for reading.

The Accelerated Reader Horror Story

Take my personal pet reading peeve: The Accelerated Reader program. I cannot heap enough abuse on this disaster of an approach to inspiring a love of reading. The program is simple. The student reads a book (and it must be a book for which the school owns the AR test) then takes the test. Each book is worth a certain number of "points" based on reading level, etc. Sounds simple, right? Until you see the tests themselves, which apparently (I don't know if this is true or not) were written by college literature professors.

Students, thinking they have the key to quickly earning the requisite number of points for the grading period, pick up a big honking book (say a later Harry Potter one) and read it and take the test. They fail. Why? The test often picks out theme or minor incidents or requires a level of thought that the student hasn't yet reached. So, the student (or even the TEACHER may even REQUIRE) picks a much lower point value title and reads lots of them. Hence you have 7th graders reading board books to rack up more points. (I know not all schools allow this.)

Supposedly in reading/literature class they "model" how to read a bigger book. The reading group or class reads and analyzes a book together then everyone takes the test. But the learning, if it occurs, never transfers to independent reading. Mr. Gallagher blames AR too, but in his experience, kids somehow pass the big book test and don't do any more reading.

The "Sticky"

Next culprit I know first hand is something known as "the sticky." This IS a useful note-taking exercise, but it's requirements leave the student searching for the "sticky stuff" instead of enjoying (and REMEMBERING) the book. This would be best taught right before Jr/Sr Literature in high school--AFTER the student is a very successful reader. While Mr. Gallagher agrees that these are overused and not helpful to developing readers he does not mention my theory of waiting till high school to teach note-taking in literature.


Finally there is the OVER-use of literature. Students are flooded with it in way too many classes. Math class may read the ever-wonderful Phantom Tollbooth, but in history they may be supposedly "enjoying" Across Five Aprils and in literature they are reading Esperanza Rising and in P.E. they may have a biography of an inspiring athelete and...well, you get the picture. Too much of a good thing is still TOO MUCH. (Example: My kids were both tortured in 8th grade with dragging out Johnny Tremain almost as long as the Revolutionary War took--nearly a whole semester reading ALOUD every blessed word. They LOATHE the book now although the first few days they were excited.) Gallagher rails against the over-teaching of books, of the trivial analysis exercises and the chopping up of books into way too many bites.

So-called "Relevant Literature,"

Another aspect of over use, in my opinion, is too much DEPRESSING stuff! Yes, some children DO need exposure to abandonment, alcoholism, child abuse, and other "gritty" "real life" stuff. But a whole host more of children need exposure to BELIEVABLE positive images. These are largely absent.


Then there's the ridiculous over-use of multicultural anything. Exposure to other cultures is a necessary part of education, but it should not occur in a way that denigrates the "home" culture. When a student's own culture, religion, heritage and beliefs are ignored they begin to see it as "less than." (Hence multiculturalism, I know, but we now mostly skip the USA and Judao-Christian thought).

Boys are students too!

Absent too are "boy books." Back in the ancient history of my life, aka school in the 1960s, everything was aimed at boys. Today girls are the new boys. Too much is aimed at them, at their maturity level and at their way of reading. Some schools ARE changing this, but few really are getting the score even.

Our Real Life Experience

Here is my personal summation of reading in our family. B spent several years reading stupid little books to pass AR tests. She learned to love Juney B Jones as something to do for FUN. Then the AR tests came. She hit her first AR school when not-quite-fluent in English. She arrived near the end of the year. No one explained the system to her. No one showed her how to find the test. (I later confirmed this--"all kids know that" I was told....) she failed. So did P at the same school for the same reason. FAILURE is something most of us don't want to repeat. Both still enjoyed having me read aloud, but hated reading. New school, better support, neither kid was "allowed" to move up to a bigger, more interesting book so as not to reinforce the earlier failure. And on and on it went. In our early homeschool year, both improved as readers. They read some assigned, some for fun, but narrated nearly all to me. When they returned to public school the next year their reading levels had soared. Back to AR tests, back to stupid books.

B LOVED much of what we read together in both years of homeschool (grade 3 and grade 6). She thrived and began asking questions. Even Plutarch when read aloud was understood! She can still talk very knowingly about our read alouds or "car books" which were way above her reading level at the time. She also still gushes over how wonderful Black Ships Before Troy was. No book reports. No sticky notes. No AR test. No comprehension workbook. Just read and tell me about it. Today she reads at, by my estimation, about a 4th grade level. Why? 2 years back in public school. Today she HATES reading. Will NOT read. It breaks my heart. I see no way to change this. I'm hoping high school will help, but I sorely doubt it. That brings on reams of total garbage, over "analysis" of literature and stupid ways to make it "relevant." Mr. Gallagher seems to totally agree with this too!)

P is pretty much the same story. His high school year at home let him become a reader. No author reports, no story maps, no finding and learning X number of vocabulary works. Just lots of narration or illustrations drawn as narrations and suddenly I had a reader. He has always loved poetry, but naturally at school dare not let this be discovered. At home, he read reams of it. And wrote more. He writes amazing poetry, song lyrics and rap lyrics. He is a huge reader. Something I NEVER, ever thought would happen. Why? He is left alone to read and enjoy it, a tactic mentioned in Readicide as one of the most successful for developing readers!


dstb said...


I have not read this one yet, but it is on my Amazon wish list (where I keep track of books I want).

My older son is an avid reader and is heading back to public school for high school. I have my fingers crossed that they won't suck the life out of his enjoyment of books.

Thanks for the review.

Hopewell said...

If they start to take him out!! (I know that may not be possible....)

Susan said...

Very interesting ... I remember AR just getting started as I was getting out of teaching. I only dealt with it in the early elementary years, but yeah, I remember the emphasis on dumb little details that nobody would remember. Sad that stuff like this kills the joy of reading for so many kids. I hope it can return someday!
Even though I didn't have AR as a child, I still remember the thrill of finishing college and being able to read anything I wanted, "just for fun."