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If we stop telling kids what to read, they might start reading again

A rain shower sends Maynard Elementary School kindergarten student Maya Roby to shelter during a literacy program in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP/The Knoxville News Sentinel, Paul Efird)

As a treat for Hanukkah last month, Sandra Stotsky took her grandchildren to the New England Mobile Book Fair in Newton, Mass. They were wandering around aimlessly. The store in a suburb of Boston has 32,000 sq. ft, of books, but the kids had no favorite authors, nothing they'd been longing to read.

Stotsky, a self-described "professional Jewish grandmother," had plenty of suggestions. After all, she'd written the educational standards for Massachusetts's public schools, which were widely regarded as the best in the country until 2010, when they were replaced with the Common Core. She was appalled when one of her granddaughters eventually picked Catching Fire, the second book in the The Hunger Games trilogy.

The book, Stotksy said, was too easy, and in any case, she didn't think it conveyed the values that she wanted her grandkids to grow up on. "This isn't what grandma is getting you for Hanukkah," Stotsky recalled telling her.

Stotsky's experience illustrates a broader debate among experts about childhood reading: whether students should be allowed to read what they like, or whether they should be encouraged to read specific books -- ones that are challenging and edifying, books that will make them into better readers.

The latest salvo comes from a survey released late last week by Scholastic Corp., a publisher of popular children's books, which suggests that middle and high school students who have time to read books of their own choosing during the school day are also more likely to read frequently for pleasure.

"For us, choice is key," said Kyle Good, a spokeswoman for Scholastic. "When you let kids choose the books they want to read, they'll be voracious readers."

In the survey, 78 percent of students, who read frequently for fun (at least five days a week), said they had time to read a book of choice during the school day. By contrast, 24 percent of infrequent readers -- those who read for fun less than one day a week -- said they had time to read a book of choice during the school day.

More broadly, it could be that the only time older children have for reading for fun is dedicated time during the school day. Overall, only 26 percent of kids ages 12 and 14, and only 14 percent between ages 15 and 17, said they read for fun at least five days a week.

But it could also be that when children are encouraged to pick out their own books and spend time reading them, they are reminded that reading is something they enjoy doing -- and that makes them more likely to spend time doing it outside of school.

For decades, researchers have been suggesting that a little structured fun with books can help kids learn to appreciate them, and that kids who like to read tend to become better readers. This research has led many in teaching to advocate for free reading during the school day.

A recent study showed that children's feelings about reading in second and third grade predicted how well they would perform on reading tests when they were in seventh grade, regardless of how well they read when they were younger.

Meanwhile, the Scholastic survey -- like one or two others -- shows that kids today are less likely to read for fun. Thirty-one percent of children ages 6-17 said they read for fun at least five days a week, compared to 37 percent in 2010. The decline was especially pronounced among boys and older children, who already read for fun less frequently.

As for Stotsky, she doesn't believe that allowing children to read what they like is the right way to encourage them.

"We need kids who are reading a whole lot more, and a whole lot more demanding stuff, than they will read on their own," she said.

She notes that making time for independent reading means taking time away from instructional activities that might be more beneficial, and every minute in the classroom is precious.

Ideally, Stotsky thinks, children would be encouraged to read more books of their choice after school and during the summer -- if not by their grandmothers, then by teachers, who would provide them a list of suggested authors.

Pam Allyn, a literacy advocate and the author of several books on reading for educators and parents, countered that kids embrace reading when they can make a choice.

"You become a lifelong reader when you're able to make choices about the books you read, and when you love the books you read," she said. "You tend to get better at something you love to do."

She also argued that when children choose their own books, they're more likely to work through them, even if they're a challenge, and that educators should have faith in their students to find good reading material.

"Children make really sensible decisions most of the time," Allyn said.