There’s an interesting article in Sunday’s New York Times book section called Reading by the Numbers, pointing out new “reading management” software called Accelerated Reader, which assigns points to books based on length and difficulty. Essayist Susan Straight does some digging, and finds out that some books that are long on meaning are short on points (in the teens)… while Harry Potter books score in the 30s and 40s. Now, I liked the Harry Potter books and think they have a lot to offer. But even the vendor says that their formula does not measure literary merit. Although I’m having a hard time coming up with an example of a long, hard to read book with little literary merit (perhaps because I shun them? Or it’s too hard to get a long, hard to read book published unless it does have literary merit?), I could easily come up with slim volumes that use every day vocabulary and sentence construction to tell stories that provide great insight. All of Elizabeth Berg, for example. Or the book I finished this weekend – I See You Everywhere by Julia Glass. This approach pushes students toward longer, difficult books because students will almost always go for the points in a point-based system.
Compare this to another recent New York Times article, about a pilot program where schools are allowing students to choose books they want to read. This requires a lot of personal commitment on the part of the teacher, spending one on one time with each student, encouraging them to progress by offering more complex books that have similar qualities as books the student has read and liked. This makes sense in terms of encouraging a love of reading as well as developing critical reading skills and comprehension. But it does go against the grain of today’s education emphasis: how well do these kids do on standardized tests? Results with committed teachers are optimistic. Another factor which I think makes a big difference – setting aside time each day in school for reading. Setting expectations, and making them easy to fulfill, would seem to facilitate success!
Are kids today less interested in reading? I can’t tell. From my own experience, parents that read tend to have children who read. My parents are both big readers, and I remember visiting my grandma in Des Plaines – a trip to the public library was typically in store as I accompanied her on her regular errands. My brother reads a lot for fun and loves theater as well. And my own sons – 28 and 20 – have always read for pleasure, from toddlerhood on. My husband loves to read now (and has three degrees in English to prove it) but he tells me he was more of a play baseball until twilight, then go shoot baskets in Terry’s backyard until your mom makes you come in kind of kid. (His dad was a nonfiction reader and his mom loved suspense.)
But I know that reading isn’t always a part of daily life for lots of families. When there’s no interest in reading – and doing so is just another chore – building those skills and that desire is a big job for the teacher. There are so many wonderful, committed teachers working hard in schools everywhere to make life a little better and the future brighter for children.