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Does He Really Think Kids Shouldn�t Read?

This statement is causing a furor among literacy practitioners and scholars:

"I've said research doesn't show that encouraging reading improves reading and that sustained silent reading (SSR) is probably not such a good idea." --Timothy Shanahan

Ohanian Comment: I leave it to Joanne Yatvin and Stephen Krashen to speak to the main part of Shanahan's argument. I just want to say that his second-to-last paragraph is one of the nuttiest things I've ever read. Maybe as a textbook author, Shanahan is pulling a shenanegan here: Let's see: he doesn't want individual teacher choices influencing impressionable young readers, but wait a minute, he publishes commercial material with Pearson, to name one. Is the imposition of corporate choice fine and dandy?

Never mind that a core principle of SSR is that the student chooses his own reading material.

I know that SSR transformed my class of third graders in a working class neighborhood. Our school was rigidly grouped: high, middle, and low readers. I had the low readers. Convincing them to start the school day with silent reading was neither easy or quick, but I hung tough and once kids got into it, they would whine and carry on when I'd call a halt after an hour. Yes, I also read for that hour. Many children have never seen an adult reading for pleasure..

And the Standardistas will ask, as did my colleagues, that if the kids read silently an hour every day, when do you have time to "teach reading?" I have never dignified that question with an answer. The skills are in the reading.

I never interrogated children about plot or theme or how many ducks were on the pond or the CR blend and those children's comprehension test scores soared at the end of the year. And more than that: families were transformed. Families searched libraries for the books I read aloud and read them again at home--so everybody could enjoy the story the third grader was talking about. Book requests appeared on Christmas and birthday lists. My students' purchases from the Scholastic Book Club soared. SSR was at the center of all of this. And of course I was at the center too. I read aloud throughout the day, and my very deliberate choices, influenced the choices children made for SSR. I should hope so! A teacher teaches who she is every second of the day and the notion that students should be shielded from the teacher's literacy preferences through the barrier of commercial programs is not only sick; it is self-defeating.

Such an endeavor as SSR requires great faith: Faith in books and faith in children. The current president of the IRA exhibits neither.

Joanne Yatvin sent this letter to every member of the IRA board of directors.

Dear IRA Board Member:

As a long time IRA member , I was disturbed and dismayed by President Timothy Shanahan's "Message" in the June/July issue of Reading Today. Although IRA has "three primary purposes" in its bylaws, Dr. Shanahan feels that he is obligated to support only two of them. I believe that the chief officer of an organization does not have that choice. Whatever his personal feelings, it is his obligation to publicly support the organization's goals. He also says that "encouraging reading" is a teacher's personal goal. I believe it is not only one of the primary goals of education, but a bedrock goal of American society in maintaining public schools.

To justify his position against the practice of having children read books of their own choosing silently in school, Dr. Shanahan cites the findings of the National Reading Panel, of which both he and I were members. He admits that the research on encouraging children to read used by the Panel was scant and of dubious quality; and he knows that the Panel's final stance on school programs encouraging more reading was essentially neutral because in their judgment the effectiveness of such programs was "as yet unproven."

Through his statements and his specious reasoning, Dr. Shanahan has quickly convinced me that he is not the leader I want to follow. Therefore, I am terminating my membership in IRA for the coming year. I will join again in May 2007 when once again someone who believes in reading is leading the organization.

Sincerely yours,

Joanne Yatvin
Professor Stephen Krashen speaks out strongly for the effectiveness of Sustained Silent Reading:
The success of SSR is one of the most consistent findings we have in the professional literature. It is possible that it can be improved, especially with activities that increase interest in books such as read alouds and some discussion (e.g., Maryann Manning's study), but pure SSR is a consistent winner in the research.

Krashen, S. 2001. More Smoke and Mirrors: A Critique of the National Reading Panel (NRP) Report on "Fluency" Phi Delta Kappan.

Krashen, S. 2004. The Power of Reading. Libraries Unlimited/Heinemann (second edition.

See more articles.

The bottom line: There are two views of meaningful reading - one view is that it is a place to practice consciously learned skills. Another is that reading is the source of our skills. I think the evidence supports the second view. I think the National Reading Panel assumed the first, and did not even consider the second. Or maybe they were not even aware of it.
President's Message by Timothy Shanahan

I'm a new president. And some might wonder about my ability to represent IRA. So let me begin this first column of my presidency with an appraisal of the IRA mission.

According to its bylaws, IRA has three primary purposes: (1) to improve the quality of reading instruction, (2) to encourage reading and an interest in reading, and (3) to promote reading proficiency. My career has focused on purposes 1 and 3, so no one should be concerned in those areas.

But many IRA members emphasize encouraging a love of reading. They care about literacy levels, but they care even more about creating a culture of literacy.

What's the problem? To many, I'm the guy who says it doesn't matter if kids read! (Who would make an idiot like that president of IRA?)

I've never said it doesn't matter if kids read. While being "misquoted" is an easy out, I don't want to get off the hook that easily, as I've said enough things like that. For instance, I've said research doesn't show that encouraging reading improves reading and that sustained silent reading (SSR) is probably not such a good idea.

If love of reading is why you joined IRA, what might you expect from my presidency?

  • bans against "Children's Choices"?
  • increased IRA emphasis on watching television?
  • lots of frowning?

  • 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
    Reading Today





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