Thursday, June 5, 2014

Can we please stop repeating this "fact" about reading?

A foundation in my county has done all sorts of great work to improve the quality of life for local citizens. Thus I hesitate to criticize any of their efforts, which I think are mostly well-intended. But when I came across this promotional piece about the foundation's efforts to increase "kindergarten readiness" among local children, I must admit I was gobsmacked.

I could write a very long post about all the claims in the piece that make me uneasy, but instead I will focus on one statement that I find particularly dishonest:
"Until third grade, children are reading to learn to read. From there on, they are reading to get information."
To be clear, this statement is not original. It can be found, in slightly different form here and here, among other places. You can probably find some document from your local school district that makes this claim. It has become a predictable component of the "kindergarten readiness" speech parroted by school administrators, grant program overseers, and testing company representatives.

But it's not true, and more of us need to stand up and say so.

For my children, and for every other child I've known, reading has emerged from a complex mix of motivations. To say that beginning readers are reading solely to "learn to read" is reductive and insulting. It does, however, explain why so many schoolish beginning texts are incredibly boring. Why would content matter if learning to "decode" is all that beginning readers care about?

Do you know what my eldest son carried off to bed every night during the couple of months he crossed that magic bridge from not reading to reading? Transformers graphic novels intended for older children, and the Kentucky State Driver Manual. Why was he willing to expend effort, night after night, on these books? He wasn't attending school; no one was pressuring him to learn to read. He expended effort because he was interested in Transformers story lines, and fascinated by the hidden meanings of road signs, especially the unusual ones. In other words, he was reading to get information, even though he was five years old and, if schooled, would have been in kindergarten.

My daughter is nine, and homeschooled like her brothers. If she were in school, she would be in the third grade, and by now supposedly "reading to get information." But, in fact, her reading skills continue to improve the more she reads. Like her older brother, who has been reading for five years, she is learning how to read (better) as she reads, picking up new words as well as a more complex understanding of how structure, tone, punctuation, figurative language--the whole kit and kaboodle--create meaning.

And what about all the other reasons that people--children and adults alike--read? What about reading to escape our present difficulties, reading to be entertained, and reading to be inspired? No sane educator would disagree that people, including children, read for these purposes. So what does the current educational establishment really mean when it proposes an imaginary change in reading intent that occurs precisely before third grade?

It means that starting with third grade, you are expected to be a fluent reader as defined by the current educational establishment. It means that starting with third grade, if you aren't reading to the current educational establishment's standards, you are on your own. It means that in some states, you will be held back in third grade until you are a fluent reader as defined by the current educational establishment--that is, unless your parents take you out and homeschool you, or put you in a private school that is more tolerant of individual children's unique learning schedules.

The current educational establishment likes to cite evidence that if children aren't reading fluently by third grade, they are screwed. But this appears to be a self-fulfilling prophecy driven more by the withdrawal of teacher support for later readers than by a brain-based missed window of opportunity. Just because one isn't yet reading fluently doesn't mean one is incapable of learning about all kinds of important things. Peter Gray's study of unschoolers provides a compelling look at unschooled children who learned to read later than the schools now deem acceptable, without lasting negative consequences, and with plenty of positive ones.

Administrators, teachers, and the parents of schooled children should read Pam Sorooshian's description of her "late" reader jumping up and down at the mere idea of reading The Borrowers and ask themselves if public education might possibly learn something from unschooling families, rather than spreading made-up facts about reading.

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