Teaching reading

The children arrive this morning with their mother gradually joining us over the next days and weeks. Since I'm pretty sure I'm not getting much sleep the next two nights as the baby makes the transition to new caregivers, I thought I would write a post with some content because who knows when you will see that again?

Last night I finished reading the book, The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child, by Donalyn Miller. I really loved this book even though the intended audience were traditional school teachers, mainly because I share the author's love of books and reading and sharing that joy with children. And I loved her reading about her journey of how she shares that joy with the children who pass through her classroom. What I found particularly striking is that in reading her descriptions of how she 'teaches' reading is that where she has landed is what many of us homeschoolers do with books and reading and our children. I will elaborate, but first some background.

I remember this, and probably you do, too, and Ms. Miller describes it when she talks about how reading is usually taught. There are several things that happen... spending an entire semester on just one or two books, many lessons having to do with the book but that don't involve reading it, and classroom reading where children take turns reading out loud. (This was my particular pet-peeve. Being a very fast reader, I wouldn't follow along but read ahead and be done with the page long before the class reached it. The trick was to be able to find where we were when my turn was coming up next. It taught me a lot of things, but absolutely nothing about reading.) None of these strategies create children who love to read and read voluntarily. Actually, it is my opinion that if people set about to create a method to make children despise reading with every ounce of their being, they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

And perhaps creating non-readers really is the agenda. I'm not trying to go all conspiracy theorist on you, but you've got to wonder when you read quotes such as this:

"In 2000, the National Reading Panel left independent reading off their recommendations for improving reading instruction, stating, 'The Panel was unable to find a positive relationship between programs and instruction that encourage large amounts of independent reading and improvement in reading achievement.' (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000, pp. 12-13)"

Ms. Miller then goes on to say, "It puzzles me that an initiative with the purpose of improving students' reading achievement leaves out independent, free-choice reading. Stephen Krashen, respected researcher, activist, and author of The Power of Reading, identifies fifty-one studies that prove that students in free-reading programs perform better than or equal to students in any other type of reading program. Krashen found that students' motivation and interest in reading is higher when they get the opportunity to read in school." And actually, anyone who stops to think about it for longer than a minute or two, could figure out the more you do something, the easier it becomes... even reading. Especially reading. If a child is only reading two or three books a year, and they are books that are not compelling to that child, how on earth will that child ever have the skill or interest to do more?

And this is why Ms. Miller is actually a homeschooler at heart. She recreates in her classroom what we (and many other homeschoolers I know) do in the course of living our lives. First, she allows her children time to read whatever they want in class. She makes time for it. We homeschoolers have a lot of time for reading, but instead of her half an hour, I have children who routinely spend one to two hours a day reading. Second the reading is free choice. Ours is as well. I will occasionally require certain books to be read, but more often than not, it is what my children want to read. Third, she actively seeks out books her students will enjoy and recommends them. I do the same thing. I am constantly recommending books to my children, keeping my ears open for things that will interest them, talk to them about books. Books are a part of life around here, you can't help talking about them. Fourth, she takes her students to the library often and helps them to learn how to find things to read. Well, I have written enough about our library visits for you to know that we do that a lot. My children view libraries as places to find interesting things and are excited about going. Fifth, she models the enjoyment of reading for her students. Most homeschoolers are also book lovers. In fact, dealing with the amount of books in the house is a constant joking problem often discussed when homeschoolers get together. We take very seriously Cicero's quote, "A room without books is like a body without a soul."

As excited as I was to find a teacher who is making a difference in the reading lives of her students, I was also incredibly saddened. Read this paragraph from the end of the book;

"I want more for my students than this nonreading state. I want them to feel that reading is a pursuit in which they continue to learn and receive solace and joy throughout their life. I want what English Journal editor and columnist Chris Crowe wants for his own children when he begs, 'I'd like just once, to have one of them stagger into the kitchen, bleary-eyed and late for breakfast, because of staying up all night to finish a novel. I'd love to see them curled up on the couch rereading a favorite book. I would go to my grave a contented old man if once before I die, and before my kids grow up, if I could hear one of my children talking excitedly to a friend about a book just finished.' This entreaty was not an admonishment directed toward his children or a missive from an expert; this was a dad pleading with his children's teachers to encourage his kids to read."

I read this and wanted to scream and cry all at the same time. I'm sure you can figure out why, I've written about institutionalized parent-abdication before. Please, if you are a parent with a child in a traditional school, I strongly encourage you to read this book. And if you are a homeschooler, I would encourage you to do so also, especially if you are tempted by any number of curricula which aim at 'teaching' reading, but have the capacity to suck the soul out of even the best book.
I have a new article up at Heart of the Matter on Encouraging and Discovering Your Child's Interests.


Patty Mueller said…
This is one of the reasons I started homeschooling. Hearing a 6th grade teacher denounce a "Stop, Drop and Read" program -this in a school with a HUGE immigrant population, many of whose children likely had illiterate parents. Who models pleasure reading for kids if parents cannot read?! - because "our job is to teach reading, not to have fun reading." Said sternly while she slapped one hand in the other.


Lucy said…
I showed up for breakfast bleary eyed more than once as a teenager, because I stayed up late finishing a book. And I definitely had problems in school practicing free reading - the teachers were constantly telling me to put my book away and pay attention to their lecture. Sigh.

We didn't have a television, so no doubt that played a part in my sister and my voracious appetite for books.

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