A love of reading

I’ve been tutoring a first-grade boy in reading this year. At first, he read very slowly and laboriously with much complaining. The book was always “boring.”  Suddenly, he learned how to sound out words, but it was still a chore to get him to read. Then, last month, his reading speed accelerated.

“I can read chapter books,” he told me yesterday. I asked him what he likes to read at home. He said he likes the Magic Treehouse books, passed down from his older sister. (These appear to be written at the second-grade level.)  “I like books with mystery and adventure!” he said. He also likes to read funny books. He likes to read.

Ms Widget’s students like zombie books. Three boys were so excited by Zombie Survival Guide that they read it together. They’re looking forward to World War Z.

British Education Minister Michael Gove explains in The Telegraph why he wants to challenge (not require) children to read 50 books a year.

I want to take on the lowest-common-denominator ethos, the “let’s not be too demanding”, “all this smacks of targets”, “the poor dears can’t manage it”, “the idea of a canon is outmoded”, “it’s all on the internet anyway” culture which is anti-knowledge, anti-aspiration and antithetical to human flourishing.

In 2009, 63 percent of white, working-class children “couldn’t read and write properly,” Gove writes.

To pass the state English Literature exam, students study four or five texts, including one novel.

In exams more than 90 per cent of the answers on novels are on the same three works: Of Mice and Men, Lord of the Flies and To Kill a Mockingbird. Indeed, out of more than 300,000 students who took one exam board’s paper last year, just 1,700 studied a novel from before the 20th century:

Gove is excited by Drop Everything and Read (DEAR), aka sustained silent reading. As Cal has written in the comments, the research shows that students don’t read any better in schools with a silent reading period than they do in schools without time for students to read a book of their choice. Perhaps the loss of instructional time cancels the gains.

I think teachers should ask parents to require children to read the book of their choice for 30 to 60 minutes before spending 30 to 60 minutes watching TV or interacting with a computer screen.

About Joanne


  1. I’d like to see schools drop all the stupid “busywork” assigned as homework in elementary school and instead require students to read for 1 hour per night. I’d also like to see wider adoption of the Waldorf policy of having parents sign a contract agreeing to not allow their children any “screen time” during the school year.

  2. Teachers can ask parents to do anything they want, but that doesn’t mean it gets done. It’s hard for parents to ask their children to do something that they don’t do themselves. I’ve even heard parents in the car pool line complain that they can’t get their kids to turn off the video games. Of course, any rational person would wonder who’s in charge at their houses, but it really doesn’t matter. Teachers are forced to accept reality the way it is while doing their best to educate families on what their kids need. The kids who need to spend the most time reading are unlikely to be encouraged to do it at home, even if that’s where it should be done.

    I’ll be honest here: my kids’ teachers want math facts reviewed daily and we get around to it only a few times a week. I’m a motivated parent and my kids have very little media time (0-45 minutes a day during the week). If I have trouble getting in all the things the teachers want, how about those kids who don’t have the luxury of educated parents who support teachers?

    I spent time at a school with a high free/reduced lunch population last fall. For many of the third graders in the class I worked with, their silent reading time was the only time they ever got to free read. Some of them went home to places where they were the person in charge of feeding younger siblings and getting everyone to bed. Even if they had books, when would they read? The teacher used reading time to conference with students about their reading and do individual and small group reading instruction for those who needed it. I’m not sure what else she could have done. Those kids needed to read.

  3. tim-10-ber says:

    The tree house books are good for younger readers. There is another series of books that my older son loved when got a little older. I cannot remember the name of the series but some of the books had alternative endings…made for fun reading. These were monster type books. Then there is the classic Hardy Boys mystery…

    Thanks for tutoring him!

  4. Asking parents to do this? That’s not a plan at all.

    Clearly, the problem is that parents are not even aware that this would be a reasonable parenting decision. Hoping that parents start parenting better is a “so solution” proposal, as schools have been arguing this for years. Often the parents are the bad – or non-existent – influence. Teachers simply must do everything they can to model effective academic behavior and trust that it will succeed with some students. Schools can be that role model, a model of structure and high expectations.

    Since I became a parent, I encounter more and more kids who simply don’t read and their parents have no expectation that they do so. And if these kids reach fourth grade not reading, they will never catch up. The elementary school kids in my neighborhood love Harry Potter – but for many that means the movies and video games. I offer the books – and my son who has read the series twice encourages them to read them so they understand more of the story. Yet, the kids don’t and some parents allowed their kids to miss school after going to the midnight showing of Deathly Hallows.

    Several years from now these kids will be struggling readers and students in my CP English classes. All I can do is encourage and have high expectations. But parents are doing quite a bit to sabotage their children’s futures.

    And test scores will point the blame at me and my colleagues.

    Big “sigh.”

  5. SuperSub says:

    Good point about parents simply not knowing any better. The question is… how did most of a generation or two develop a gap in what used to be common parenting knowledge?
    My guess is that this is an unfortunate side effect of the women’s rights movement. So many households became two-income households that there wasn’t a parent at home to raise children on a daily basis, robbing those children of the parenting knowledge that they would need when they in turn grew up and had children.

  6. SuperSub, you are falling prey to that common misconception known as nostalgia – the Golden Age of which you speak never existed. Keep in mind that Rudolph Flesch wrote “Why Johnny Can’t Read” in 1951.

    We just never had an expectation that everyone would go to college like we do now. Women’s rights had nothing to do with it. I was a latchkey kid from first grade, but we were a family of college-educated readers. That set the tone.

    I know plenty of stay-at-home moms who are parking their kids in front of SpongeBob and Nemo all day. In fact, many are sitting there with them.

  7. SuperSub says:

    I wasn’t clear… I didn’t mean to suggest that a student’s inability to read is due to two working parents, but instead that the lack of quality time with a responsible adult causes serious character flaws – specifically the desire to simply pacify and not engage one’s own children.
    Children left to their own devices become narcissistic and seek immediate gratification. Reading doesn’t fit into that when you throw in video games and TV.

  8. Though I’m an English teacher, I’m not sure how to improve reading.

    But here are some thoughts

    1. Quantity matters. A child who reads 5-10 hours per week, every week from 4th through 12th grade, will score quite a bit higher on their SAT’s than a child who reads just one hour per week.

    2. Forcing a child to read at home sounds a lot easier than it is. Instilling a love of reading is hard too, but not as hard as forcing a child to read.

    3. Parents often sign reading logs without even looking at them. (If I sent a note home that said the child is required to spend three hours shoplifting at the mall, I’d get in trouble, of course, but I’d also get about 20% of the papers back signed with no questions asked.)


  9. Karl Grubaugh says:

    I’ve been a secondary teacher — mostly high school, with a few years of middle school experience earlier in my career — for more than 25 years.

    I know, within a couple of days, which of my student have been life-long readers, and which students have spent way too much time in front of an electronic tube. I also know it’s too late to catch up in high school.

    My own three children are an interesting case study. My 20-year-old daughter is a college sophomore, and she was a voracious reader from early elementary school. My wife and I (more my wife than me) read to our kids every day when they were small, for probably an hour and often longer. When they were really small, we often had to read the same book over and over again (I can still recite “Goodnight Moon” from memory). In elementary school, my daughter quickly became an independent reader who reads for pleasure.

    My oldest son’s story is similar, although he has a love for history — he was reading David McCullough in the fifth grade. Today, he gobbles up a daily newspaper and, every week, several magazines. A high school junior, he probably reads 75-100 books a year — Jon Krakauer is a recent fave of his, and he’s loving Bill Bryson’s humor and his older book, “English, and how it got that way.”

    But my youngest, a seventh grader, is very different. He didn’t “take off” as a reader the way his older siblings did. He’s much more bodily kinesthetic, and he’d rather run around and practice various sports skills than read.

    At least he used to. But in the last 12-18 months or so, reading has exploded for him, too. He loves Harry Potter. He’s read all the books in the Narnia series. He often can be found, fairly late at night, with a flashlight and a book under the covers. (He doesn’t know we’re aware of his late-night habits.)

    We limited his screen time to a couple of hours a week. We encouraged and helped him find stuff to read that he enjoyed. And I think he’s nearly caught up to where his older brother and sister were at his age.

    The point? Kids develop at different rates. We should celebrate their gains and growth and remember that a slow reader today might sizzle tomorrow. And so we should continue to emphasize the things that work (parents reading to young children, making lots of interesting, age-appropriate reading material available to emerging readers, parents modeling a love of reading, etc.) and we should continue to limit things that get in the way (excessive screen time in particular).

    My youngest would love to be a professional baseball player someday. If he makes it that far, he’ll also be the unusual athlete with a stack of books on the top shelf of his locker.

  10. Richard Aubrey says:

    Expecting parents….
    If reading were fun, instead of fundamental, things would be different. It seems, however, that educrats think fun reading is a bad idea.
    I am a voracious reader, probably because as a combination of luck, cunning, and lethargy, I never read anything people told me I should read.
    Moby Dick. Good description of whaling. Otherwise, a couple of nutcases getting themselves in trouble.
    Catcher in The Rye. Kid, born loser, ended up in the rubber room. This is something I should take as “coming of age”? You kidding me?

  11. Expecting a 6 yr old to sit by themselves and read for 30 minutes a day is unreasonable. It’s equally unreasonable to think they will play at the piano by themselves for that long at that age. Instead, you make it a joint activity. Not just an in-parallel activity, but a joint one. Same with eating a well balanced meal: a 6 yr old isn’t going to sit by himself and eat his vegetables. But if the family is having dinner together, and dinner time is enjoyable, then sooner or later, the child learns to eat vegetables on their own, too, because the basic enjoyment of the ritual has been internalized permanently.

    Parents reading wonderful literature to a 6 yr old for 30-60 minutes a day is how most kids learn to love reading. Happy parent, happy child, family time together, exciting book: that’s a recipe for learning to love books. As they get older, if they’ve been well taught the mechanics of how to read, then they will enjoy reading by themselves and for themselves.

    Making a child read or attempting to force a child to read is not the same thing. If the adults don’t enjoy reading, the child will have a much harder time learning to enjoy it for themselves.

  12. Regardless of whether it lead to ‘gains’ or not for me as a student, I do remember how much I loved SSR time when I was a kid in school back in the 1970s.

    For one thing, it was a chance for everything to be quiet. I realize I was an atypical kid but I was often overwhelmed by being surrounded by talkative peers and stuff. It was really nice to be able to stop for a half-hour or whatever at the end of the day and read a book that I chose myself, that was one I wanted to read, and to be able to read it at my own pace.

    Of course, in my household, my parents read too, and weekly trips to the library were an important thing and not to be missed. I tend to think the way kids get to be readers is to have parents who are readers. (I was also read to for many years – even after I could read myself – at bedtime as a child. And I was welcome to come and sit in my little brother’s room when he was read to, years after I “graduated” from being read to.)

  13. Many good tips here, so I’ll throw in one more.

    A friend of mine had a good tactic for enticing his young children to read, and I copied it for my children as well. When they were young we would give them their bedtime, say 7:30 for a first grader. However, it was 8:00 if they chose to read. The time was always told to them first with the alternative offered if they chose. They always, always chose to read alone to get the extra 30 minutes. They seemed to think they were getting away with something. We applied this all through grade school as their bedtimes increased. This increased their reading habit (and stamina) by quite a bit, and yet they felt they were in control in some way.

    Of course, it goes without saying that there was no computer or TV in the rooms, and there were a lot of books to choose from.


  14. “Expecting a 6 yr old to sit by themselves and read for 30 minutes a day is unreasonable.”

    I don’t think it’s unreasonable at all. Both of my oldest two children voluntarily read far longer than that by age 5 1/2. The key thing is that we don’t have the distraction of TV. We have no cable/satellite and get no broadcast reception. We do have a DVD player and a Wii but those are strictly limited.

  15. Anyone who thinks a small child can’t sit still and be absorbed in a difficult task has clearly never seen a pre-schooler trying to follow a lego blueprint! 🙂

    Kids can sit still and concentrate, even the ADHD ones, but it’s a skill that needs to be cultivated.

    I think the problem is that a lot of kids are arriving at school after spending their formative years in front of a screen–so they’ve never learned to sit and concentrate.

  16. (Heck, at our local elementary school, more than half the Kindergarten shows up not knowing how to hold a crayon!)

  17. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Isn’t it odd that sitting for hours in rapt attention in front of a television seems to destroy someone’s ability to concentrate for long periods of time?

    I’m not saying it’s not true — just pointing out that it’s really weird at first glance.

  18. Michael– I think it’s because TV doesn’t usually require active attention— the kids are more ‘comatose vegging’ when they watch. So while it does make them sit still, it doesn’t really teach them to concentrate.

    On the other hand, haven’t some computer games (like Tetris) been shown to help with concentration?

  19. I’d add in to the chorus of those who point out that you can require reading at home, but it ain’t necessarily going to happen.

    I am also a firm advocate of graphic novels and comic books. I have found struggling readers who eat those up. Problematic? No. The kid’s reading, and often I’ve noticed an improvement in reading skills once the kid finds a graphic novel series they’re really into.

    Developmentally, sometimes a kid who isn’t that good of a reader suddenly “switches on” during a middle school summer. The kid goes from a reluctant reader to reading huge books and anything they can get their fingers on.

    I think that the key is getting a reluctant reader to read is to find something which engages them and makes them want to read, though there are kids who desperately want to read but still can’t figure it out.

  20. Roger Sweeny says:

    michael mazenko,

    I agree with everything you say until the last sentence. Test scores don’t point at any causes. They just say who did well or poorly on a test.

    People blame teachers for low scores because they believe that good teachers lead to a lot being learned and bad teachers lead to a little. At the extreme, they believe that a good teacher can teach anyone. After all, teachers are professionals, who went to specialized schools and learned specialized techniques, which is why they deserve to be well-paid.

    Who would tell them such things? My union, for one. The ed schools. We let them make that argument because it has led to a fairly comfortable salary/benefit/pension system. But it’s a lie and now it’s coming back to bite us in the …