Raising readers

If students aren’t reading at home, they’re not learning in school, writes Dan Brown, a high school English teacher in Washington, D.C., on Teacher Leaders Network.  He has students who read avidly but often skip journal entries and other assignments. They do very well on standardized tests. His “worker bees” do the assignments but dislike reading and never do it unless forced. They earn low test scores and write poorly.

Brown cites Veda Jairrels’s African Americans and Standardized Tests: The Real Reason for Low Test Scores. Jairrels, an education professor and lawyer, believes black parents don’t read enough to their young children or encourage older children to read for pleasure at home.

When I tell African American parents about the importance of taking their children to the library, they sometimes reply, “My child has plenty of books at home.” My unspoken response is, “No, you don’t. You just think you do.”

Children of all races aren’t doing enough home reading, writes Book Whisperer Donalyn Miller. In an e-mail to parents, which she hasn’t yet sent, she asks parents to do more.  She doesn’t assign reading logs, but asks for 30 minutes an evening of reading and 30 minutes on weekends.

It may not seem that I assign much homework in language arts, but that is because I want the children to read and read and read.

Meeting with children during conferences each week, I am told time and time again that, “I do not have time to read.”

. . . The only people who can carve out reading time for your children at home are you, their parents. This is hard, but it matters more than any other academic support you could provide.

It’s difficult for parents who aren’t readers themselves to raise kids to love reading. But I think Miller is worried about literate parents who’ve simply set other priorities.

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  1. If Judith Harris, in The Nurture Assumption is right that children are socialised by their peer group rather than by their parents (and children do acquire their peers’ acceents, not their parents’, if the two are different) then this is the wrong approach – the schools should be looking to encourage peer pressure to read. Get the peer pressure right and the kids will carve out the time for reading themselves if at all possible. Unfortunately I don’t know how. Harry Potter probably did the most good for this.

    I’m also doubtful that parents encouraging their children to read will encourage the kids to read, my parents encouraged me to do sports, and I only did the minimum to keep them off my back. My grandmother encouraged me to read contemporary NZ literary fiction, so I thanked her nicely for the books and put them away unread. Perhaps the best parents can do is the advice Miss Manners gave: “Ban them from reading in bed and give them flashlights for Christmas.”

  2. I’m skeptical of the whole “not enough time” thing.

    I’ve mapped out with our high school students their free time. And this is a pretty intense school. Commute 1 hour each way. Some kids go 8.30 to 5.00, others til 7.00. Plus maybe 20 days of summer.

    Still leaves: 365 – 190 (school year) – 20 (summer) = 155 days without school.

    That’s a decent chunk of time for sports, pleasure reading, church, family, hanging out with friends, video games, facebook, et al.

    Unlike suburban families, few of our kids are able to afford music lessons, camps, vacations, etc.

  3. Margo/Mom says:

    This is an area that deserves more than anecdotal evidence and assumptions about how many books a black parent has in their home. There are things that a parent are unlikely to say to a teacher, among them: I never liked reading and I’m not very good at it myself; I don’t have a library card because they require me to prove that I’m a resident and I never have all the right things when I go there; I don’t have a library card because I lost a book and I cannot afford to pay for it; I am overwhelmed when I get home at night and it’s as much as I can do to put dinner together and make sure that everyone has clean clothes for tomorrow. I am not willing to assume that any of these is the case. I just want to point out that what a parent is telling a teacher when the teacher suggests that they are (one more time) at fault for their child’s poor reading may not be the best source of information.

    And, having once come up with some meaningful data with a likely correlation to reading success–the next question becomes how behavior can be altered. Most research that I have read suggest that parents at all income levels and across racial categories do far more work at home related to reading than to math. Further, both schools and other entities (libraries for example) are more likely to give specific direction (read with your child). This suggests that thoughtful campaigns to bring about desired behavior do have an effect. That is, if the intent is to change the situation, as opposed to setting a different set of expectations for some children.

  4. “There is no frigate like a book, to take us lands away” Emily Dickinson. How true. High-quality books, whether fiction, non-fiction or poetry, stretch the imagination, knowledge of the world and vocabulary. All schools should incorporate all kinds of books, not just touchy-feely fiction, but “boy-friendly” fiction and lots of non-fiction. In early grades, teachers should read aloud often, to expand kids’ knowledge base at a time that their reading level is limited. That being said, the relationship between books at home and reading level is a correlation; not a cause. Giving kids books does no good if the books are only used to support the game console. As long as reading for pleasure is seen as culturally strange/unacceptable/geeky etc., there won’t be much of it.

  5. Mark Roulo says:

    Still leaves: 365 – 190 (school year) – 20 (summer) = 155 days without school.

    Were you weekends free from homework when you attended high school? Mine were not…

    -Mark Roulo

  6. I just finished a very interesting book by Peg Tyre called “The Trouble with Boys”. It had a long discussion about the perception that reading is a feminine thing. My DS is lucky because his dad, both grandpas, and two uncles are all avid readers. But many boys, particularly African-American ones, do not have men around who model reading for pleasure. Moms and the predominantly female teaching force can only do so much to interest boys in reading. If we want to get boys to read, the men in our society need to do more to encourage that.

  7. One thing that really helps…turn off the TVs at home. They are such a time suck!

  8. Thanks for mentioning my book. Please see my blog at http://www.vedajairrels.wordpress.com.

  9. Homeschooling Granny says:

    Tracy W
    What Judith Harris describes in *The Nurture Assumption* is a cultural artifact, not something innate in human nature. Psychologist Gordon Neufeld and MD Gabor Mate explain how this happens in a book written for parents entitled *Hold on to Your Kids.*

    Home schoolers whose children socialize with people over a broad range of ages do not fit *The Nurture Assumption* paradigm.

  10. Cranberry says:

    “Home schoolers whose children socialize with people over a broad range of ages do not fit *The Nurture Assumption* paradigm.”

    Homeschooling Granny, can you cite studies? Or is this an anecdote?

  11. Psychologist Gordon Neufeld and MD Gabor Mate explain how this happens in a book written for parents entitled *Hold on to Your Kids.

    Thanks for the suggesting Homeschooling Granny, I’ll reserve the book. Do you know if Neufeld and Mate only consider studies that control for genetic effects? (Which means studies that look at parents and adopted children whose biological parents are not related to the adopted parents).

  12. Oh, and as for homsechoolders, as they socialise with a broad range of people, what does it mean that they don’t fit the nurture assumption? Judith Harris discusses anthropologists’ reports of how children live in a variety of small villages and hunter-gatherer groups, while these of course do not home-school in the Western way, their lifestyle is similar in that they do not spend much, if any, time with classmates of their own age as there aren’t enough classmates.

    Judith Harris also discusses some trans-cultural reports, for example a study of the children of Japaense executives who moved to the USA for a few years as their fathers moved for work, and then returned to Japan, or studies in Denmark of adopted children’s crime rates and the relationship to where the kids grew up.

  13. It’s going to take me some time to order the book, as it’s not in the catalogue in my library, but I found this article on line at http://www.vifamily.ca/library/transition/353/353.html
    and it makes me suspicious about the book Homeschooling Granny refered to.

    For example, it says:
    Culture, until recently, was always handed down vertically, from generation to generation.

    This is a surprising statement, and does not explain cultural change. Consider for example the conversion to Christainty across the Roman empire. Or the Reformation in Europe. Or the development of different accents amongst English-speaking countries, American, Canadian, Australian and British accents are all distinctly different to British ones.

    Furthermore, Judith Harris discusses the case of the children of the upper-class British, who were raised by nannies and governesses, not their parents (there are many reports of said kids seeing their fathers about once every school holiday for lecture about doing well at school) and yet continue to be broadly similar in accents and outlooks to their parents – Judith Harris speculates that this was because the British upper-class children were socialised by their boarding schools, not by the adults who actually did the jobs of raising them.

    Today, the music children listen to bears very little resemblance to the music of their grandparents.

    And the plays children attended after the advent of William Shakespeare bore very little resemblance to the plays their grandparents attended.
    And the music listened to after the advent of Mozart bore very little resemblance to the music of their grandparents.

    Consider the introduction of the waltz about Jane Austen’s time, a shocking new form of dance.

    The way they look is dictated by the way other children look rather than by the parents’ cultural heritage.

    As has been true throughout human history. A brief look at a history of fashion book should have shown Mate that fashions always change. Consider the vast difference from the stiff brocades and powdered wigs of the late 18th century to the flowing classical-inspired gowns of most Jane Austen novel adaptations, to the crimoline-supported vast skirts of the Victorian era. And there’s nothing special about that time period either, except that a lot of people know roughly what Victorian and Regency fashions looked like – fashions changed throughout medieval European history as well. How can these changes be explained if the way children look in the past was dictated by the parents’ cultural heritage?

  14. Homeschooling Granny says:


    That is my observation, both in my personal life and through what I read from other homeschoolers. I’m not aware of there being much research on homeschoolers and I think that is a shame because I think it could illuminate some of our debates of how education happens. I hear that homeschoolers are hard to study but I wonder whether anyone has really tried. It doubtless would be expensive.

    Tracy W

    I read *Hold on to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers* 4 or 5 years ago and do not recall what studies it may refer to. It was written for parents rather than for fellow scientists or researchers. It does have an index and some notes at the end.

    I read it several years after reading *The Nurture Assumption* which had left me perplexed and unsettled. *Hold on to Your Kids* righted my ship of understanding. I have a made a synthesis of ideas from each which make sense in the context of my daily life. It occurs to me that it would be rewarding to re-read both books now but I have a daunting pile of books that have priority. HTH.

  15. Homeschooling Granny says:

    Cranberry, and others,

    Speaking of research and homeschoolers, there is a question that has been on my mind for some time and I don’t know where to find the answer. Perhaps you do.

    I hear that homeschoolers do so for religious reasons. Or that initially homeschoolers were mostly religious fundamentalists. But I thought John Holt was the founder of home schooling and he was driven by concepts of how children learn. Seems to me homeschooling has been secular right from the start. Is there a reliable history of homeschooling somewhere?

  16. Margo/Mom says:

    Tracy–I have been trying to remember. It seems as though for some paper that I wrote I used some research that was highly critical of The Nurture Assumption. I am not certain that there is much peer support (in the sense in which we use “peer” in the term “peer review”) for the view that children are primarily socialized by their peers. Certainly this conflicts with both Bronfenbrenner and Erickson–who both identify roles for peers–but also view the home/family as having a key or primary role. Erickson is quite clear about the role of peers being significant in the adolescent struggle to place their family/historical being within a wider social construct–with an end result (in reasonably healthy youth) of resolution of the two (family and peers). I think that Bronfenbrenner is perhaps a bit less didactic in his discussion of the types and strengths of various possible connections between the various spheres of home/school/other and the many such overlapping spheres and influences–but is quite clear in suggesting that those environments best poised to continue the development of the child/youth are those in which there are multiple overlaps and connections between home and (school) environment.

    I believe that both, however, would suggest than any youth who are primarily socialized by peers are likely to present with pathologies and the need to resolve various inner conflicts about who they are and where they come from.

  17. Margo/Mom, I think Judith Harris would agree with you that there is not much peer support for the idea that children are primarily socialised by their peers, she would say that this is because there has not yet been done much research into it.

    The most obvious support though for the idea that ordinary children are socialised by their peers is that if the peers’ accent is different to their parents, most ordinary children will pick up their peer’s accents. And this actually stops happening with adolescence, for most people, contrary to the research you summarise which implies that the peers become significant in adolescent struggle. (Of course, along with some children who don’t pick up their peers’ accents, there are some adults do keep changing accents, Jim Bolger, an ex-Prime Minister of NZ, was notorious for picking up the accent of whomever he had been listening to last).

    I think also Judith Harris would criticise Bronfenbrenner and Erickson for conflating home/family. Most children are raised by their genetic parents, so to the extent that the organisation of our brains is inherited we should expect a statistical relationship between children and their biological parents. However, when it comes to encouraging reading, we can’t do much about genetics so we tend to look to cultural influences.
    A further complicating factor is that if children are socialised by their peers, and most people stay in the culture they were born into, then most children will be raised amongst children who come from a similar culture to their parents. My brothers and I all speak with NZ accents, as do our mother and father, this is not because we inherited our accents from our parents directly but because our parents were raised amongst other NZ children just like they raised us. The ability of a parent to affect their children’s peer group by selecting where they raise their kids and where they send them to school means that family can have an effect on socialisation too, just it’s not a route that is likely to be affected by parents encouraging their own children to read.

    Judith Harris does discuss some other studies that suggest that socialisation happens amongst peers – the study for example of Japanese executives who moved with their families to the USA for a few years – this study followed the Japanese children in the USA and back to Japan, the children’s personalities moved on average towards American ones, and the older the children were when they moved back affected their socialisation back to Japan, the oldest kids did not adjust back, younger ones did. Another study looked at adopted children in either Netherlands or Denmark (I can’t remember which), their biological parents’ criminal records, their adoptive parents’ criminal records and the crime rate in the neighbourhood they grew up in. Biological parents’ behaviour and the neighbourhood crime rate was correlated with criminal behaviour in the children, adoptive parents’ behaviour did not.

    I believe that both, however, would suggest than any youth who are primarily socialized by peers are likely to present with pathologies and the need to resolve various inner conflicts about who they are and where they come from.

    Interesting, Judith Harris I believe would suggest that any youth who is primarily socialised by their parents is likely to present with pathologies.

    See http://xchar.home.att.net/tna/devpsyjh.htm for some reading.

  18. Tracy–the old nobody understands me because nobody has researched in my area excuse leaves me a bit cold. I found the article:

    Vandell, D. L. (2000). Parents, peer groups and other socializing influences. Developmental Psychology , 36 (6), 699-710.

    I don’t know if you have access online, but if you do, it is worth a read. It looks at Harris’ theories in the light of existing research, finding overall that a multiplicity of socializing influences exist working in concert. Where all are strong and positive, the result tends to be well-adjusted children. Where some are problematic, others may compensate. Where all are problematic, of course, kids don’t have much of a chance. The study does point out that taking Harris’ assumptions about the role of the peer group within a larger context that does not deny other influences, underline a particularly important role for teachers as the shaper of the peer group.

  19. Tracy–as an adoptive parent, I just had to respond to your comment about Erickson and Bronfenbrenner equating home and family. While those are actually my words, I would suggest that while kids who are adopted have additional work to resolve their role with both the family which raises them and their biological family in the context of society as a whole, the home in which a child is raised is still an extremely important, and possibly primary, source of socialization and development.

  20. HS Granny- I think you might really enjoy Milton Gaither’s book on the history of homeschooling. You can find out more information here.

  21. Margo/Mom, you say: ”
    the old nobody understands me because nobody has researched in my area excuse leaves me a bit cold.

    I don’t understand why you have said this. Judith Harris has noted several pieces of research that support her hypothesis, I summarised some from The Nurture Assumption, and the link I provided contains a number of references to research. To quote for example:

    Secure attachments to one caregiver are not good predictors of secure attachments to another (Cox, Owen, Henderson, & Margand, 1992; Goossens & van IJzendoorn, 1990); nor are secure attachments to parents good predictors of successful relationships with peers (Howes, Matheson, & Hamilton, 1994; Lamb & Nash, 1989).

    The link also references some formal peer review work on accents.

    In light of this easily available evidence that Judith Harris has drawn on some evidence, your statement about your feelings about an unnamed person or persons’ excuses looks to me like an effort to poison the well.

    I have not got access to the Vandell article itself, but I will try to look for it through my library. Judith Harris’s response to Vandell’s argument is at the link I earlier provided.

    As for your second comment here, you are of course free to suggest that the home in which a child is raised is still an extremely important source of socialisation, but the question to hand is whether it in reality is, for kids who are also exposed to other potential sources of socialisation. On the development topic, I would like to know how you define development – obviously parents are an extremely important source of food and food is necessary for physical and brain development, so if that’s what you mean by development then I can agree with you.

    All in all, your response to this prompts me to ask a question – what evidence, if any, could convince you that parents are not an extremely important source of socialisation?

    (My answer to the symmetrical question of what could convince me that parents are an extremely important source of socialisation, would be a combination of evidence that when parents and the outside-home environment differ that children take after their parents after controlling for genetic effects, and also an alternative explanation of matters such as kids’ accents matching their peers, and the socialisation of the British upper-classes for all those centuries).

  22. Homeschooling Granny says:

    Crimson Wife
    Thanks for suggesting Milton Gaither’s book. I’m quite excited to see that he addresses not only current homeschooling but also colonial, about which I’ve often wondered.


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