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Heidi Crumrine: The joy of reading

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Monitor columnist
Published: 6/24/2018 12:25:14 AM

There is a wonderful and tangible joy that emanates from a young child who has finally learned to read. A whole world has opened up to her. She is excited, she is devouring books, and she is proud of herself. As a parent I have watched this transformation happen with my own children. Learning to read is a special milestone; watching a child learn to love reading is even more special.

All too often, something changes around middle school, and the child who previously loved to read is less interested. Unfortunately, this notion is not at all unusual and is well-documented across many studies of adolescent reading habits. According to Penny Kittle in her 2013 book, Book Love: “All adolescents are reading less. There is a downward trend in voluntary reading by youth at middle and high school levels over the past two decades.”

This is supported in the findings of the 2015 Kids and Family Reading Report that 53 percent of children surveyed ages 6 to 8 reported reading for fun 5 to 7 days a week, and yet only 14 percent of 15- to 17-year-olds reported the same. Additionally, the same report indicates that the number of students who enjoy reading has steadily decreased from 2010 to 2015. This is not encouraging news. Essentially, our children are learning how to read and then abandoning it.

This dramatic drop off in pleasure reading habits is disturbing, but is it really so important? Yes. There are the obvious reasons: If our students aren’t reading, then they also are not learning. This means that they are not making progress on the reading skills they need to achieve success in all other academic areas, and to be college and career ready. Research clearly indicates that students who read develop robust vocabularies, build background knowledge, and are better able to think for themselves and engage with the world around them. We need to help our students get there.

Another interesting finding from research, however, might surprise you: Reading for pleasure outside of school actually increases social mobility.

In their article for the Atlantic in 2013, Jeffrey Wilhelm and Michael Smith discussed the results of the British Cohort Study, which followed more than 17,000 people born in England, Scotland and Wales during the same week in 1970. The findings were not ones you typically hear about in regard to pleasure reading: “Reading for pleasure outside school had a significant impact on young people’s educational attainment and social mobility because it actually ‘increased cognitive progress over time.’ ”

Wilhelm & Smith noted that “the impact of pleasure reading . . . was more than three times greater than the level of parents’ educational attainment.”

These findings suggest what I have long hypothesized: Reading can be a great equalizer. It can even become an issue of social justice. If our young people are not reading, they are not gaining the skills they need to succeed in school, which is inhibiting their access to the curriculum, and, thus, opportunity.

I firmly believe that deep down, everyone loves to read. Those who say otherwise just haven’t found the right book yet.

So what can we do about this? As a classroom teacher, I have modified my approach to reading instruction in a way that shifts my teaching away from a one-size-fits-all method to a balance between offering students choice and engaging in whole class texts. If we want our students to become better readers, then we need to give them opportunities to do that. They need to read books at their level and that interest them. They need to have time in class to read and time in class to talk about books. Real readers, I tell my students, read. And they don’t answer multiple-choice questions after each chapter every time they do it.

We do not question the validity of running the mile in gym class, yet, for whatever reason, when we suggest giving students time and choice to read in class, there is an implication that it is gratuitous. When students are reading more, they are better equipped to tackle the more challenging texts we want for them. Their proficiency grows and they gain confidence. They no longer have to be dragged through a book; they want to do it. They are proud of themselves, like my students pictured here. Each is holding a stack of books that represents the number of books he or she read this year. These are ninth-graders, many of whom told me at the beginning of the year, “I don’t read.” I am very glad to say that I proved them wrong.

My efforts to re-ignite in my students a passion for reading is what brings me the most joy in my job. I am genuine and humble in my desire to encourage other teachers to consider a similar approach.

I take to heart the words of Kelly Gallagher in his book Readicide (2007): “Our highest priority is to raise students who become lifelong readers. What our students read in school is important; what they read the rest of their lives is more important.”

To spark a love of reading in a young person is to set in motion a pathway for success that will follow her wherever she goes. We don’t need to be the gatekeepers; we give our students the gift of books, and they can open any door that stands before them.

Tips for Parents and Summer Reading

– Model what you want to see in your child. Let them see you reading and talking about it. If you read primarily on your device, let them know when you’re reading so they know you’re using it as a tool, not a toy.

– Make sure they have access to books. Visit your local library and sign up for the summer reading program.

– Allow them choice. Yes, you may have loved The Crucible in high school (I did!), but that does not mean your child will, and that’s okay. If you want to see them reading, then let them read what interests them. That means graphic novels, sports lit, vampire stories or Harry Potter for the 10th time are all fair game. It’s summer; let them have fun with reading.

– Know your child and his/her technology use. If he or she is easily distracted or quickly sidetracked, stick to traditional books; if he or she actually enjoys reading on the device and it leads to more engagement, then go with it.

– Be careful with incentives. They can sometimes work, but there’s a significant body of research that they can do more harm than good. Instead of assigning arbitrary page counts or time limits to chore charts, try offering an experience as incentive: Read this book and then we will watch the movie together, for example. Or, just ditch it all together and sit down as a family and enjoy reading together.

Young reviewers wanted

Gibson’s Bookstore is always looking for students (independent readers up to grade 12) to join their Student Review Team. Select an advance reader’s copy from their cart of available books, take it home for a few weeks, write a review that meets simple guidelines and receive a $2 credit for in-store purchases.

(Heidi Crumrine, the 2018 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year, teaches English at Concord High School.)

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