Does He Really Think Kids Shouldn�t Read?
This statement is causing a furor among literacy practitioners and scholars:
No one need fear these possibilities. I love reading, and I, too, want to live in a society in which readers and print are free to associate and in which they associate frequently.
SSR: Sounds great, but... I
first learned of SSR when I was a new teacher. It sounded great. Stock your room with books and magazines, and provide time when kids can read without being bothered by teaching. I tracked down carpet for the library corner and lots of books. I don't think my kids ever missed a day of SSR.
So what went wrong? I read the research. What got me wondering was that the studies often didn't find a benefit but claimed one anyway. Researchers would divide kids between SSR and "normal instruction," find that the groups learned equally well, and then conclude that because reading is as effective as teaching, SSR must be a good idea.
But what is "normal instruction"? Often, it turned out that the kids were assigned random worksheets. What a terrible definition of teaching! Assigning random worksheets is dopey, and the fact that it did as well as reading made me wonder.
The issue isn't whether it is good to practice. It is whether we can get kids to read more--and to read enough to improve their reading ability.
I was on the National Reading Panel, and we looked into this. (For details, see Report of the National Reading Panel at http://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubskey.cfm?from=nrp and scroll down.) There were few published studies on encouraging reading and even fewer rigorously implemented ones, or ones that had positive results.
Only one study (written by Edward Summers and J.V. McClelland in the Alberta Journal of Education in 1982) even bothered to find out how much the kids were reading--and it found SSR led to less reading. Yikes! The panel concluded judiciously that we needed more evidence. As Michael Kamil pointed out in an American Educational Research Association presentation in 2006 and Jun-Chae Yoon and J. Won noted in a National Reading Conference presentation in 2001, we simply don't know how to get kids to read more.
There is research on motivation, but those studies don't tell how to motivate kids. Motivating kids to read is more complicated than teaching them to read. Lots of instructional approaches improve achievement, but what about motivation? What stimulates one person may not work for another. Providing an on-your-own reading time may be a boon for one kid and a bust for another ("Boring!"). It is even more complicated than that, as what excites us at one moment might not work later. I love reading about baseball, but I think I'll skip the new expos on Barry Bonds.
Public responsibility and personal aspiration
That we hope to expand the literacy franchise means we are dedicated to educational opportunity for all. Such efforts are a service to our society, in the same way the work of nurses, business persons, plumbers, and accountants are a service. That we are committed to literacy as a source of pleasure serves society in less obvious ways, as it is more about the kind of society we hope to create.
One goal is a public responsibility, while the other is a personal aspiration. That is a critical distinction. It means the larger community expects, or even requires, us to teach well, but the stimulating desire part is our game, not theirs.
No teacher should be deflected from meeting the responsibility to teach. To teach reading well, we must jealously safeguard instructional time (because it belongs to the kids and the community) and follow the research carefully. To encourage reading, we have to invest ourselves as individuals and follow our hearts.
Ultimately, the difference comes down to freedom of choice. No one has the right to refuse to become literate: "Other people can read for me, thank you very much. I just don't want that kind of responsibility." The implications would be too grave to allow a youngster to opt out. But choices about what to love must belong to the individual.
Teachers are institutional beings...they work for schools, governments, and societies. Teachers must carry out their responsibilities to the best of their abilities. But what about personal goals like encouraging reading? There are dangers--to an individual and to a democracy--when public institutions and public instruments try to dictate personal taste and individual choice. Institutionalizing efforts to encourage reading may even be self-defeating--as students may resist to protect their individual autonomy.
As president, I will continue to work on public initiatives to improve reading instruction and achievement. As for encouraging reading, my role will be to cheer on all who have made it their personal quest to invite kids to a life of reading--a personal invitation I hope they can extend successfully to their students.
Timothy Shanahan is a professor of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and director of the UIC Center for Literacy.
Does he really think kids shouldn't read? (June 2006). Reading Today, 23(6), 12.
Timothy Shanahan, President International Reading Association
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