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Odds Stacked Against Pleasure Reading

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Sherre Sachar comes from a book-loving family. Her father, Louis, is an award-winning author, and the graduating senior thinks that settling down with a good book should be one of life's great joys. But as she prepares to leave high school and head to Cornell University in the fall, she is tired of reading.

The extensive required reading in her high school classes -- including Advanced Placement English Literature, where she flew from one classic to another -- left her with no time to pick up books she thought would be fun. And she was frustrated by teachers who offered either too little help in understanding the complex texts or conducted tortured efforts to wring symbolism out of every word.

"I haven't read a book for pleasure in about three years," said Sachar, 18. "If I do, it's in the summer, and I might only get through one book because I'm so sick of trying to read. It's not fun anymore."

Allowing students some choice in what they read and helping them understand the content is a difficult balance to strike for today's teachers, educators say.

With high-stakes standardized testing driving curriculum and teachers increasingly required to use scripted lesson plans, what is getting lost for many teachers is the freedom to allow students to explore books of their choosing -- and the time to explore the meaning, the educators say.

And many students, especially in high school, simply have no time to read what they want.

"When kids are in high school now, the stakes are so high, and they have so much homework that it's really hard to find time for pleasure reading," said Dawn Vaughn, president of the American Association of School Librarians and librarian at Cherry Creek High School in the Denver suburb of Greenwood Village. "And it is so important that kids have time to do this."

In advanced classes, teachers often rush through tomes and require students to read year-round. Over one Christmas break, Sachar had to read two hefty novels, "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and "Midnight's Children." Summer had its mandatory reading, too, and her father, author of the Newbery Medal-winning "Holes," said her experience left him thinking that "sometimes the top schools confuse quantity with quality."

In high-poverty areas, federal and state mandates constrain the use of literature, often to only an excerpt in a commercial anthology, said Richard Allington, president of the International Reading Association and professor at the University of Tennessee. When teachers do use literary excerpts or whole books, they tend to "ask low-level questions for which there is usually only one right answer," he said.

"Many teachers must select books that are on the 'approved' list of their school or district, which means that books with content the administration or committee that selects such books finds objectionable will be left out," said Esmeralda Santiago, award-winning author of "When I Was Puerto Rican."

Allowing students to pick their own books is more than a democratic reading experiment. Studies show that reading achievement is significantly improved when students have an opportunity to choose from a selection of interesting texts rather than being dictated to.

James Blasingame, an expert on children's literature who teaches at the University of Arizona, said elementary and middle schools are doing a better job than high schools incorporating the books that children like to read and giving them opportunities to choose -- especially at high-performing schools.

At Todd Elementary School in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., fifth-grade teacher Diane M. Mallett routinely provides opportunities for her students to select books that excite them, and her students say the freedom to choose pays off. Ricky Grassui, 11, said he likes to read only "sort of" but admits to diving into books he can choose.

This year, Mallett added a new reading opportunity for her students: participating in the country's largest annual Children's Choices book list, run jointly by the Children's Book Council and the International Reading Association. Mallett's 21 students were among the 10,000 children asked this year to read books published in 2004 and review them for other children. (At the same time, teachers and older children also review books for separate lists.)

The students said they loved the freedom to choose what they read. "It was really fun," said Samantha Sternschein, 11. "We'd get a basket of books and got to pick out what looked good to us. At the end of the book, you'd fill out a form asking, 'Did you like the book and would you recommend it to anyone?' It made us want to read more."

It is more often in 10th grade and above where choice tightens and meaning is dictated, said John H. Bushman, director of the Writing Conference Inc. and a University of Kansas professor.

Curriculum often demands that these students read classics, even if students have no "clue about the theme, the syntax, the vocabulary and for the most part they really don't care because the literature does not connect to them," he said.

There is no "making meaning as readers" -- allowing students to bring their experiences and thoughts into the analysis of meaning -- because many students don't understand what they have read, he said. Teachers are left to "tell them what it means," he said.

That happened to Abbey Becker, a graduate of Richard Montgomery High School who attends Emerson College. During the summer before 11th grade English class, she read Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" and enjoyed it. The joy was lost in class, however, "ripping apart sentences and trying to figure out the metaphors."

"The word 'funny' might have meant one thing to me," she said, "but it supposedly had a definite counter-directional slant to it, in the author's mind. How did my teacher know this?"

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