Friday, June 22, 2012

How many books did our students read this year?

I'm going away for a few days on a camping trip, but I'm going to try to schedule this to be posted on Friday.  Miraculous technology!  (I feel like Willy Loman's boss, Howard, who tells Willy about his amazing new tape recorder, which allows him to listen to Jack Benny at any hour he wishes, as long as the maid remembers to record the show for him when it's aired.  I suppose if this doesn't work I could always have my maid do it--if I had a maid...)

"How many books did our students read this year?" is a question that we should all be asking.  A couple of weeks ago I asked it of the students in the "Tutorial" class I work in once a week.  Not how many books they were supposed to read, but how many they actually read.  The answers I got were interesting.  The students read, on average, about six books each over the course of the year.

These are kids who are in a very well-run academic support program.  More than half of them are in honors English classes.  They have been in school for eight and a half months.

If we assume that kids are truthful in their reporting, and even if we pretend that kids are reading every page of the books they claim they are reading, and if we assume that a book is, on average, 300 pages long, that would mean that each kid is reading fewer than ten pages a day.  And if you look only at the lower half of the distribution (mostly kids who are not in "Honors" classes), each kid is reading only 150 pages a month, which works out to 5 pages a day.  For the kids in the lower quarter of the distribution, each kid is reporting reading reading 2 to 3 pages a day.

I think it's safe to say that this is not enough.  Children should be reading closer to two books a month, at the least. 

What were the averages for kids in my own standard-level classes?  8.5 books per kid.  Better--but again, not nearly enough.

There are a number of reasons it's hard for schools to get kids to read more:

  • If we ask kids to read at home, it is very hard to make sure they really do it, and the weakest readers will tend to read least
  • If we have kids read in English class, the teacher then feels that she herself isn’t doing enough.
  • If we have an academic support program, that program will support the work that is being directly checked and graded that day or week, and that usually means producing or processing a piece of paper (because that's checkable), not reading a book.
  • If we have a remediation program, we tend to want to remediate the particular areas in which we see the kids are weak (fluency, comprehension, vocabulary, etc,) so we tend to teach “strategies” or vocabulary aimed at these specific areas.
  • Remediation teachers have the same desire to feel personally useful, and just having the kids read doesn’t seem like “teaching”
  • Also, remediation programs have very little time (typically an hour a week), and we know the kids need more reading than that, so spending the time having them read seems inadequate.
These are major obstacles in every school: my own son just finished sixth grade at a wonderful school, and he reports that most of his “Reader’s Workshop” time is spent with the (excellent) teacher giving direct instruction.  Less than half of the time, according to his report, is spent reading.  I have trouble believing this, since I admire his teacher so much, but it may well be true.  In his case, it doesn’t matter much, since he reads a lot at home, but I am sure there are number of kids in his class who do not read at home and who, because they have little time to read in school, read very little overall.  My son will get better and better at reading, and they won’t—not because he is gifted and they aren’t, but because he actually reads. (He also told me yesterday that the vocabulary lists he is made to memorize are completely pointless, that it would be much better to just read a book, because that's the way he actually learns words--and, he said, it's more enjoyable.)

So how can we make kids read more?  The answer is simple: provide them with a large number of good books at their independent reading level to choose from; and make them read; and watch them do it.  Our school has kids under its control for over six hours a day.  There is no good reason we can't have them sitting and silently reading books for at least an hour each day.  Nothing else we do with them is as important; nothing else would be as efficient, productive, and individualized.

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