Monday, December 29, 2014

Killing the Love of Reading in Kids

I read an article that stated seven ways that schools kill the love of reading in children. It was a rather long article and to be truthful, the second half really didn't keep my interest because it became more about how schools operate, rather than reading. What stuck out to me was how many points I disagree with.

Quantify their reading assignments
The article states that assigning kids a set time or amount to read makes them turn pages and not develop a love of reading. I assign my daughter thirty minutes of reading per night. It can be a magazine, online articles, graphic novels, books of her choosing. I disagree that it is making her hate reading. There are times when she reads well over her assigned thirty minutes and when she does that, it makes my heart soar. Of course, the majority of the time it's the opposite - the timer goes off and she slams the book shut, mid-sentence, even mid-word and I can tell she is glad to be done with the chore of reading. But I don't believe it is making her hate reading. She still asks to go to the library. She still spends birthday money on the next book in the series she's into. She still enjoys listening to audio books with me. And, she is a good reader to boot.

Of all the assignments I had as a child, I don't recall being told that I had to read for a certain amount of time. I recall being assigned chapters in my textbooks, but not that I had to read a book of my choosing for XX minutes per night. I am thankful for that because in elementary and high school, I had a ton of homework to deal with as it was, so adding reading time would have put my bedtime at around midnight.

But, times have changed. My daughter goes to an IB school that prides itself on its innovative, global curriculum, high tech classrooms, and small class sizes. She loves it. Yet, she hasn't had a homework assignment in three years. That blows my mind. In the real world, there are hardly any careers that are done within the confines of the job hours. Most dedicated professionals dedicate time outside their office hours to getting the job done. Yet, my daughter believes that she can get everything done during the school day and that is enough. While I vehemently disagree and feel that she is being groomed to be an under-achiever, I'll leave that for another post, and get back to my point. Making a child read does not lead to their hatred of the written word. It opens them to books they wouldn't otherwise know they like, or genres they may not try if not looking to fulfill a timed requirement. Like anything else required on a regular basis, it can feel tedious and some freedom should be allowed so they can explore writing in different forms, and keep it interesting.  

Make them write reports
Writing book reports was listed as a way to make children hate reading. Again, I disagree that simply making a student write something in response to what they read is going to make them hate reading. There are many people who would not have digested a book and found their love of reading if they did not have to think about it for an assignment. Many reluctant readers who have had books forced on them via a book report have found a favorite book, author or hobby because of a book report. Rather than the assignment, I believe what the child is asked to read makes a difference in how the report influences their opinion on reading.

I had to read a ton of books and write many essays on those books during high school. When the books were harder to grasp, like Dante's The Inferno, I wasn't excited to write an essay. But as we discussed the book in class and understood it better, I was able to write the reports and maintain my love of reading. That's not to say that the assignments were easy. But, having to articulate my understanding of the book via a book report did not diminish the act of reading, or the enjoyment the book brought. 

Offer them incentives
The article says that incentives for reading make children hate reading. Did the author of the article never earn a BOOK IT pizza from Pizza Hut?! Those things were the BOMB when I was growing up. We didn't have a lot of extra money to go have pizza so earning a free personal pan pizza by doing something I loved was definitely a motivator for me. I don't offer my daughter a pizza at the end of the month, but I do gather things I know she's into, like funky socks, nail polish, and earrings and toss them in a prize box that she gets to choose from at the end of the month for reading. She decorated the box and looks forward to the prizes in it, which I rotate to keep it fun. She looks forward to choosing a prize and I love rewarding her for something that I love so much as well.

I don't think that incentives will make kids hate reading for the reason the article lists. I think it's more a sign of the times. When I was young (writing that makes me feel old), we didn't have the means or access to getting what we wanted when we wanted it. We got toys and treats when we earned them, or as gifts for holidays and birthdays. Today, kids get stuff for no reason. A kid doesn't expect to wait to earn the newest Iphone, they expect they will get it when it comes out. Their expectation of instant gratification makes working to earn an incentive outdated and unreasonable to them. It has nothing to do with the task that leads to the reward.

Like anything else, I believe that positive reinforcement works when mixing kids and reading. It gives them something to achieve, something to work towards and that's a valuable lesson we owe our kids.

There are some points that I agree can make reading feel like a chore, rather than a pleasant experience, and the article does a good job capturing them.

Isolate them
Reading is a lonely task. As a child, I preferred to read out loud to an audience. I also loved to hear what my peers thought about the book. I have fond memories of the round-table discussions I had in my high school English class where we talked about really challenging books. I loved talking about them in a group because it made the books feel more palatable. Taking the isolation out of trying to figure out what the author intended in classic literature, or what characters in contemporary novels is a great way to make young readers feel like there is a greater purpose to reading.

I would love for there to be more book groups for kids in my area. The library offers one for teens, but that is the only book club I know of for kids. I believe that if children see other kids get excited about books and characters they will get into them, too. It creates an environment of acceptance of books that is rare for kids.

I know that enticing your kids to join a book club probably sounds like a difficult task, but I am not one who believes that kids should have too many choices anyway. I'd take the approach of signing up my daughter, and making her attend at least three sessions before deciding if she doesn't want to do it anymore. By then she'll meet the other kids, make a friend, and find something she likes about the group that will make her want to stick to it. I believe this can be true for kids who struggle with reading as well. Just because a child struggles with reading, doesn't mean he doesn't like it. If put in an environment of patience and support, even a kid who reads below his grade level can develop a love of reading, and find characters he loves. If more schools offered reading time more like small book groups among kids who read at the same level and choose what they read, perhaps the statistics in the infographic above would improve.

Focus on skills
I'll be the first to admit that I never took to the Classics. I never became a fan of Poe, Shakespeare, or the Bronte Sisters. Mostly because of the way I read their books. They were assigned reading in high school and we broke down nearly every line, dissecting how it was written and the brilliance of the language. There was no focus on how we could relate to the writing or how it fit into the world we were facing. The books were read to teach vocabulary, sentence structure and other literacy skills that made reading these books feel like a lesson, rather than feeling like a connection between me and the words on the page. It made it an exhaustive experience, and it was certainly a turn off. I understand why experiences like that turn kids off to reading.

Prepare them for tests
It was clear when a teacher presented a book solely to prepare the class for some standardized test. I think most books I read in middle school were for that purpose. When the focus was more on expanding vocabulary and not on expanding my world view, I was instantly disengaged in the book. It didn't make me hate reading, but I definitely didn't look forward to it, or care what happened to the characters.

I agree one million percent with James Patterson. I think that the main reason children decide they hate reading is because they don't find a book that draws them in. That is why I find it so imperative that reading materials - from magazines, to comics to e-books and blogs be offered as reading options to kids. If a kid is more visual, there are comic books and graphic novels. If a child loves facts or real world scenarios, they can read National Geographic for kids on their tablet or phone. Kids who have trouble reading can listen to audio books.

And not to beat a dead horse, but if a kid doesn't relate to the characters, they are less likely to create an affinity to books in general, which is why diverse books is so important. I am willing to bet that kids seeing characters like them in print, or headlines that reflect the world as they live it, are more likely to develop a love of reading than those who are only given the option of reading about the world from a place or time of privilege. The real culprit negating reading habits among our children is not that we set an expectation of reading, or reward them for it. The true transgression is when they are force fed the materials for purposes other than the expansion of their world from a lens of understanding.

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