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Why kids should choose their own books to read in school

Leslie Mercedes, 6, reads with Cameron Lineberger, site coordinator for Reading Partners, at Brightwood Education Campus. The nonprofit group, a Washington Post Charities grant winner, provides tutoring for children reading behind grade level. <br/> (Susan Biddle / For The Washington Post)

At one time many public schools gave students time to read books of their own choosing, an activity based on the common-sense theory that kids will read what interests them, and that kids who can choose what they read will learn to enjoying reading, and, hence, read more. Unfortunately, many schools no longer let students choose any of the materials that they read. Why this is a problem is explained in this post by Joanne Yatvin, a one time Principal of the Year in Wisconsin and a past president of the National Council of Teachers of English, who has never been able to kick the reading habit.

By Joanne Yatvin

Consumed by the urgency to raise students’ reading scores, policy makers and school officials have forgotten that children learn to read by reading. Acquiring the habit of turning to books for pleasure or to find out what you want to know does more for reading development than working on decoding words or trying to speed up fluency. Although, ideally, a fondness for books starts at home, reading can become a habit through opportunities to read self-chosen books at school.

One person who understands the importance of the reading habit is Carmen Farina, the new schools chancellor in New York City. She has long supported “balanced literacy” instruction, which includes independent reading. In many places, including New City, this approach to teaching reading has been abandoned in favor of systematic programs that promise to raise students test scores and prepare them for “college and the workplace.” According to several recent articles in The New York Times and other sources, Farina is determined to restore at least one of the key components of “balanced literacy,” independent reading, in city schools.

Back in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, daily sessions of independent reading called “Sustained Silent Reading” (SSR) were popular in classrooms everywhere. In line with recommendations from reading experts, teachers allocated 15 to 30 minutes to it every day. There were no written assignments or tests attached, just the visual and soundless evidence that students were immersed in their reading. Nevertheless, 50 years later it’s hard to find classrooms anywhere that still include SSR. To a great extent, enthusiasm for the practice was undercut by the 2000 report of the National Reading Panel, which found little evidence to support its effectiveness in the few research studies that met their criteria. What the panel did not make clear, however, was that doing research on any practice that had not been converted into a structured and testable teaching method was very difficult, and thus seldomly undertaken.

As a teacher in the heyday of SSR, I can tell you that problems in classroom implementation also undermined its popularity. The main one was that SSR cut deeply into instructional time at the high school level where classes were only 45-50 minutes in length. Ironically, time was also a problem for students, but in a different way. Many of them were irritated by having to stop reading on command just when they were at an exciting or enlightening part of their book. The third problem was a shortage of appealing books in classrooms, especially in high poverty schools where most students didn’t have the alternatives of bringing books from home or buying them.

Today, many teachers and school principals, like Farina, who know the value of the reading habit would like to revive independent classroom reading, but the term SSR is tarnished, and the problems noted above still exist.   On top of that, many policy makers are calling for a longer school day to increase formal instruction. They would certainly yell louder and longer if precious classroom time were once again devoted to independent reading.

Nevertheless, there are ways to get around the inside problems and the outside criticism if school really try. At the elementary level, where classroom time is fairly flexible, teachers can stretch the reading block and even extend independent reading into the teaching of other subjects. At one school where I was principal, teachers had their students reading two books at the same time. One book was teacher assigned and used for group instruction; the other was self-chosen. When students were not meeting with the teacher or working on assignments, they were expected to read silently in their chosen books. Also, the only homework assigned was independent reading, with different amounts of time designated for each grade.

In middle schools or high schools, the easiest path is to make independent reading at least half of every day’s homework by putting strict limits on subject matter assignments. But another possibility is for teachers of the same grade to select different days of the week for a full period of reading. Or schools that still have study hall time might decide that it would be better used for reading than for the socializing or napping that usually goes on. High poverty schools could make the same changes, but they would first have to figure out ways to get more books for students: free ones, used ones, a library grant, creating a school book exchange, or having a used book drive in the community. As someone once said, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

If I were Queen of the World, I would decree that all students be given the gifts of time and books they want to read throughout their schooling, and all pre-readers would have an adult who would read aloud to them everyday. Through independent reading children gain a wealth of background knowledge about many different things, come to understand story and non-fiction structures, absorb the essentials of English grammar, and continuously expand their vocabularies. Many also remember visually how to spell words.In a nutshell, the habit of reading does as much, if not more, than Direct Instruction and the rigorous demands of the Common Core. All without boring kids to death or persuading them that they’re dumb.