Or, suppose they gave a common-core-aligned lesson plan and nobody came?
Here’s a tale of three sisters. The first two don’t remember learning to read as a struggle, even though their companions on the journey were the pasty-faced and bland Dick and Jane. And Spot and Muff. From See Spot run. Run, run, run they made the leap to more exciting fare like Honey Bunch: Just a Little Girl (I loved it when she fell down in the coal cellar, though I had no idea what a coal cellar was). They would just as soon curl up with a book as pedal their bikes madly around the neighborhood. For the youngest sister, though, reading didn’t come easy. She would get frustrated sounding out words (“What does a b sound like?” the middle sister would ask impatiently, when forced to listen to her practice. “Bu-bu-bu, a, a, a, du-du-du . . .”). Little sister was (is) a smart cookie and reads perfectly well now, but it was never her favorite thing to do. Her house is crammed with everything except bookshelves. She’s just not a reader.
Reading itself is not a “natural learning process” for most children; it has to be taught, and basic phonics is probably the best way to do it for most. But the break-it-down-in-little-bitty-learning units doesn’t work for every child. The “whole-language” approach to reading, which used to be called look-say and is probably called something else now, had one idea right: reading is an integrated process involving vision, brain circuits, emotion, and physical and mental readiness. And it’s a mystery: how does anyone grasp this highly complex system of combining and recombining 26 symbols into the entire western canon? It’s much more than just translating symbols: it’s also catching inferences and making connections and understanding figures of speech and gaining a sense of plot and character development, all of which comes with practice and can’t be front-loaded: readers will understand the subtleties of reading only after they’ve read. A lot.
Surveys indicate that reading for pleasure is a declining activity, for lots of reasons. but teachers and parents can help kill it off, if we’re not careful. For instance, we can
1. Make everyone in the class read the same book. As much as I love it when a school district buys copies of The Middle of Somewhere or Somebody on This Bus Is Going to be Famous for an entire class, I know that not every student is going to love reading it. (Even though they’re both lots of fun!*) Book discussions are valuable, but only if the participants have some interest in the book. A better way to generate book discussions is to allow free-range reading, as much as possible. Donalyn Miller, The Book Whisperer, simply stocked her sixth-grade classroom with books to appeal to a broad range of reading tastes and levels, and tried to set aside an hour a day for the students to read whatever they liked. (By the end of each school year, she claims, every one of her student had found lots to like.) Their enthusiastic recommendations to other kids developed impromptu discussion groups on the fly.
2. Hand out work sheets at the end of every chapter. Really?? Every chapter? When the kids are dying to find out what’s behind the door or what happened after Danny accidentally ran into the principle with his go-cart? The author wants them to turn the page. The kids want to turn the page. Let them turn the page.
3. Make the study of a book all about how the author writes the book, not what the book is actually about. If a young reader makes it all the way to college (or senior year honors English), that’s the time to do literary analysis. As mentioned above, analysis can’t be front-loaded: it’s too much to ask a young reader to write character sketches when they don’t have a firm grasp of “character,” or outline a plot while they’re still gaining a sense of plot. It’s like grammar: you learn to use nouns and verbs fluently long before you know what they are.
4. Cut money for the library budget. See #2 above. Students will not learn how to pick up and browse a book if they have no books to pick up.
5. Cut classroom reading time in order to schedule a test. And another test. And another test. I know, if the district mandates a certain number of tests, you don’t have much choice. But maybe something else could be cut to allow for reading time. We’ll never know how much education is caught rather than taught, and how much a student subliminally learns about reading (and much else) just by doing it. This takes time. For reading’s sake and for the child’s, do whatever you can to give them time.
6. Talk it up every chance you get. Look, I’m a reader. And even I get fed up with rhapsodies about being swept away by a story or “saved” by a book. It happens, but not to everybody. Overselling can make the non-reader feel like they’re seriously missing out if they don’t hop aboard the good ship There Is No Frigate Like a Book and let it carry them to worlds unknown. For some kids, all you need to do is help them find a book or story (or subject, if they’re more inclined to nonfiction) that they enjoy. Transcendence will come from some other source for them. And that’s perfectly okay.
*Hey, don’t take my word for it. Here’s what VOYA says: “Cheaney’s narrative style is dynamic and lively. She clearly has high expectations of her audience, creating a middle-grade reader with both substance and complexity that is also truly fun.”