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Assigned Books Often Are a Few Sizes Too Big

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By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 24, 2006

If adults liked to read books that were exceedingly difficult, they'd all be reading Proust.

Most don't.

So why, reading experts ask, do schools expect children to read -- and love to read -- when they are given material that is frequently too hard for them?

"We try to push adult stuff down on younger and younger kids, and what's the point?" asked Lucy Calkins, founding director of the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University's Teachers College.

Science and social studies textbooks are at least a grade above the reading levels of many students, experts say, and in some suburban and urban school systems, reading lists can include books hard for some adults to tackle.

Toni Morrison's award-winning novel "Beloved," about a former slave's decision to kill her child rather than see her enslaved, is on some middle schools' lists for kids to read unassisted. And elementary schools sometimes ask students to read books such as "The Bridge to Terabithia," with themes about death and gender roles that librarians say are better suited for older children.

To be sure, pushing some students to challenge themselves is important, educators say. But there are points where kids read books before they can truly comprehend them and then lose the beauty of the work.

"Teachers studied 'The Great Gatsby' in college and then want to teach that book because they have smart things to say about it, and they teach it in high school," Calkins said. "Then schools want to get their middle school kids ready for high school so they teach them 'The Catcher in the Rye.' It's a whole cultural thing."

Of particular concern are students in urban school systems, said Richard Allington, a leading researcher on reading instruction and a professor of reading education at the University of Tennessee.

In large part, he blames inappropriately chosen books for students' reading woes, especially in school systems where large percentages of children read below grade level. The average fifth-grade student in Detroit and Baltimore, for example, reads at a third-grade level, he said, but schools still give them fifth-grade core reading and social studies texts.

That, he said, crushes a child's motivation.

"If you made me education magician and I had one thing that I could pull off, it would be that every kid in this country had a desk full of books that they could actually read accurately, fluently, with comprehension," he said.

Sofi Sinozich, a seventh-grader in the Humanities and Communications Magnet Program at Eastern Middle School in Montgomery County, said she would like to be assigned books that speak to her.

In sixth-grade English, "graphic novels [were] excluded, which annoyed many of us," said Sofi, who is partial to Japanese comics called manga because she finds the style beautiful and the stories well done.

Many teachers exclude graphic novels and comics from reading lists, even though a graphic novel was nominated for the National Book Award this year. And Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has said he learned to read through comics after his schoolmaster father disregarded others who said they would lead to no good.

So should kids read Shakespeare or the comics? Graphic novels or "To Kill a Mockingbird"? Reading experts say they should read everything -- when they are ready to understand what they are reading.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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