Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Can't read or won't?

Rory over at Parentalcation had an interesting post on reading instruction. The post included a video called Disteachia, in which a number of reading experts ripped the job that American schools are doing when it comes to teaching reading.

The statistics given are that 38% of people in America are at literacy levels below basic, and they say that a majority are below proficient--whatever proficient means. The doctors in this production blame nearly all of it on American schools. I always feel at a disadvantage when discussing teaching methods at the primary grades because this definitely falls out of my area of expertise. I'm a high school teacher, and that is what I understand best. I know very little about teaching the mechanics of reading, but kids are going to have to use whatever skill they have when they come to my class. I don't know what reading program our elementary school has been or is using, but I can say without hesitation that the biggest problem for kids that I deal with is that they won't read, and not that they can't read.

Reading assignments are the most important part of my American History classes. If students consistently do a good job on their reading, it's going to be hard for them to get anything worse than a B in the class. I wrote my own text, so the reading assignments are usually between two and three pages. I did that because high school students are notorious for not doing reading assignments, so I wanted to make mine very doable. I would rather have kids read two or three pages--nearly all of which they will be responsible for knowing, than not read six to eight pages--much of which will never even be discussed in class.

Every year there will be a number of kids for whom I will reach the conclusion that they have a major reading comprehension problem, only to find out that they can do just fine if they try. A student will be going along earning low score after low score on my reading quizzes, and then all of a sudden, he'll ace one. I'll call the kid up, and ask what he did differently this time, and he'll say, "This time I read the assignment." Well, surprise, surprise! This year that happened more often than any other year--when athletes were facing ineligibility, when parents put pressure on their kids, and for one young man, when we told him that we had decided that we would have to move him into my basic class. I can honestly say that the sophomores I've found who really can't read are rare.

I can only speak for my own high school, but I can say with confidence that our problem isn't that kids can't read, it's that too many of them won't read. I'm not saying that the experts on the video are wrong, but based on my experience, I do suspect that they are underestimating the "won't read" problem.


Anonymous Ian H. said...

Kids don't seem to like to read. And the ones that do, do well at school.

6/06/2007 3:34 PM  
Blogger Parentalcation said...

Wrong, wrong, wrong! Test after test, report after report, observation after observation shows that nationwide, and especially in traditionally underperforming groups aren't being taught how to read effectively.

Sure some kids get lazy in High School, but even whole language advocates agree that there are many many kids that just have difficulty.

p.s. thanks for the link, and its good to be disagreeing with you again. :)

6/06/2007 8:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The kids end up not wanting to read because they're raised by parents who just stick them in front of the tv instead of teaching their children how to be engaged in reading. Then, when they are kept from reading for so many formative years, it becomes "too hard" and any skill they had atrophies. And, other than we teachers, no one in their lives tells them that reading has any value. It's shameful.

6/07/2007 3:08 AM  
Anonymous Betty said...

Kids are so impressed by video games, computers, and television that reading doesn't seem all that exciting. Even most of their toys talk to them. It is a challenging world for parents who must sometimes pull their kids away from all of the tecky toys to sit down and read a book. I do think that there are kids in middle school and high school who can read if they want to, but they find it boring and only read when they feel like it.

6/07/2007 5:38 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

I recently had a co-worker (also parent) claim I was depriving my kids and leaving them open to being left behind technologically because we don't have cable at home and I haven't bought him a Nintendo DS.

I'm not defending teachers, but given that, I think it's likely some of both.

6/07/2007 12:56 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Ian H., Anonymous, and Betty, thank you for your comments, and I think you all have good points.

Crypticlife, far be it from me to accuse you of defending teachers! But on this one, you just might be right.

Rory, you seem to follow this type of thing very closely, so I'm wondering if you have any idea about the percentage of schools that are using the whole language stuff that you don't like. My son is a third grade teacher in Iowa, and I don't know what program they're using, but it sounds like it's effective. As I indicated in my post, I get the sense that our elementary school is doing okay, but I also don't know what program they're using.

And by the way, I agree with you about our disagreement, and I want you to know that your disagreement is much appreciated!

6/07/2007 1:25 PM  
Blogger miss day. said...

As the child of two educators (both of whom have taught and administrated), I have been around public and private education my whole life, and I'm still in the throes of it as I attend college.

I read very young--when I was four--and have never had reading comprehension problems. When I started school, I was shocked to hear my friends say they'd never had their parents sit down with them and address reading. Their parents expected them to learn in school, taught by their teachers.

As children are now 6 or 7 by the time they reach the first grade, I think that this consensus of opinion is dangerous. Parents need to realize that reading is not the school's primary responsibility. Kids should know the basics--or at least have been introduced to them--by the time they are in first grade.

There are exceptions, I'm sure, but this is what I've noticed now for the past 15 years during my education.

6/08/2007 7:51 AM  
Blogger elementaryhistoryteacher said...

Many students in my homeroom began the school year a year or two below grade level based on at least three different diagnostics. By the end of the year they were all on grade level or had increased at least one year. Just based on our Accelerated Reader results our grade level read over 25 million words....that's independent, self-selected reading. Throw in nine or ten chapters in each of four textbooks and they read much more than 25 million words. Many admitted to me they had read more on their own than they ever had before. Our carrot was setting benchmarks every four weeks. If you had completed work to a certain level you would get extra recess one day. We posted results in the hallway and from one day to the next we had avid readers. All they wanted to do was read to get their name from one level to the next. Those that didn't meet the benchmark stayed in and READ.

They also read because we MADE them. Students were accountable (grade in the grade book) for at least one AR book a week and had to take a computerized test on the book. If they did poorly we made them do it over. One of the diagnostics we use is computer-based. If kids didn't do as well as we thought they could we sent them back for a do-over. Then we conferenced with the child and looked at the difference. They began to see the difference between just getting by and what a little extra effort could do to a percentage number (we learned from it too).

I believe we can always improve methods and we always need to take the blame first, however, it is my experience that we have many more who won't than can't, and often the can'ts are extreme circumstances that require various intervention.

Hmmmm....guess I need to post about this.:)

6/10/2007 6:02 AM  
Anonymous Laura said...

I wonder also how much the definition of reading factors in for these kids. Many's the time I've had to explain that running one's eyes over the words at midnight after the big game and celebration for ten minutes does not mean you're reading. Few seem to want to understand that even "good" readers re-read and have to stop and think about the words to process them. Cris Tovani offers my favorite text on this subject with hints for all to become good readers in I Read It, But I Don't Get It.

6/10/2007 8:10 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Laura, I know that a lot of the kids who perform poorly in my class will tell their parents that they read the assignment when, in fact, they come scrambling into class and try to skim through it in the couple of minutes it takes me to take attendance before the quiz.

EHT, I am looking forward to your post. When it comes to things like this, your elementary school perspective is definitely in demand.

6/11/2007 3:10 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

"Our carrot was setting benchmarks every four weeks. If you had completed work to a certain level you would get extra recess one day. We posted results in the hallway and from one day to the next we had avid readers. All they wanted to do was read to get their name from one level to the next. Those that didn't meet the benchmark stayed in and READ.

They also read because we MADE them. Students were accountable (grade in the grade book) for at least one AR book a week and had to take a computerized test on the book. If they did poorly we made them do it over. "

Okay, so it's read, and get a reward (extra recess) and benefit (official recognition). Don't read and get negative reinforcement (no progressing until they pass).

I'm not at all surprised this would work. In fact, I bet it works regardless of curriculum. Even though having the curriculum designed correctly is important, I know it's not how I personally actually became a good reader. I became a good reader because I read near-constantly.

6/11/2007 6:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Dennis, it's Liz from I Speak of Dreams. For you, and your readers' edification, I wanted to post a link to the index to the videos at Children of the Code.


This first chapter is essentially a case for reframing how we think about reading. After reviewing the dimensions of the reading crisis we present the cognitive, linguistic, academic, emotional, and social dangers that many millions of children are experiencing. Next we present some of the consequences of low literacy, including the cost to our: democracy, economy, health care, and tax burden; as well as in terms of persistent poverty and consumer behavior. Finally, given the number of lives affected, we make the case that reading improficiency is our national learning disability and that we need to reframe how we think about it if we are going to improve the situation.

6/12/2007 10:24 AM  
Anonymous nikto said...

In my opinion, no other single factor identifies someone with possible academic leaning or potential than a love of, and natural habit of, reading.

A hatred of reading usually indicates a person who will not be achieving academic success (unless their feeling about reading changes).

Try this on for size:

Reading is to academics as
running is to sports.

Do accomplished athletes in any major sport, HATE to run?

I am 55 years old.
I know of NO academically-oriented people who actually HATE reading.
Absolutely none.

And that means none, as in: Zero.

Why are we, as a nation, pushing millions and millions of non-academic kids into a college-bound curriculum?

It is a cruel madness that
has enveloped us.

6/12/2007 11:00 PM  

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