Where Have All the Readers Gone?

Where Have All the Flowers Gone

On those days when book writing is hard, I sometimes sneak over to twitter and blogs to feel both distracted and connected. And last month I noticed that many educators were passionately tweeting and posting about what can often feel like an endangered species, independent reading.

All the tweeting and blogging about independent reading may be connected to the balanced literacy bashing I wrote about in my last post, as teachers raise their voices to counter what feels to many of us like a misinformed assault. For if nothing else, balanced literacy does what virtually none of the Common Core Standards packaged reading programs do: It structurally carves out time for independent reading—and I mean independent reading of books students choose, not whole class books they’re required to read often out of school for homework; the kind of reading that promotes a love of reading, without which too many students can see reading as a chore.

That’s not to say that some of those programs don’t note the importance of independent reading, but it’s usually mentioned as a footnote or an aside, not as a central component. And given the amount of time it takes to implement those programs, it takes a real Empty Librarycommitment on the part of the teachers and schools to keep independent reading alive in classrooms—despite the fact that students who self-identify as readers who regularly read for pleasure consistently score higher on standardized tests than those who don’t, and they participate more in the civic life that’s needed for democracies to thrive. And as I’ve seen first hand, without that commitment from teachers and schools, independent reading vanishes within a shocking short period of time as students stop carrying books in their backpacks and don’t talk about them in the hall and fewer and fewer think of themselves as readers and libraries start looking forlorn.

And so this week, I want to share some links I recently read or viewed that speak to both the power of independent reading and the power of teachers who dedicate themselves to changing students views about reading.

  • First off, is Colette Bennett‘s post “Braggin’ About Independent Reading,” in which she shares both her students experiences as readers as well as some compelling hard data.
  • Colette led me to Penny Kittle‘s video for Heinemann “Why Students Don’t Read What’s Assigned in Class,” which was the inspiration for her post. There you’ll see students candidly speak about how and why they’ve virtually stopped reading before arriving in a classroom with a teacher who, like Nancie Atwell, believes that “The job of adults who care about reading is to move heaven and earth to put that book into a child’s hands.”
  • Then there’s Justin Stygles‘s “5th Grade Summer Readers,” in which he recounts his experience with some summer school students who’ve developed a hatred of reading, committing himself to trying to turn the tide against reading around.
  • And finally, here’s a link to “SparkNotes Nation,” a post I wrote over a year ago about work I did with a high school teacher who wanted to bring some choice and meaning back to students who, like Penny’s, had become quite adept at avoiding reading.

And now it’s back to the book . . .

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13 thoughts on “Where Have All the Readers Gone?

  1. You are right! Independent reading of self-selected material is so important. It is difficult to develop a love for reading when there is only time to read what someone else has selected for you! Thanks for linking to the other posts. I will check them out.

  2. Vicki,
    After teaching all month at the University I found myself having similar conversations with teachers and the young writers I worked with. I too use twitter and FB as distractions and the other night when I went on there was a stream of tweets from a middle school conference (from what I could gather) and the tweets seemed so (forgive me) elementary in that they just said things like kids need time to read. Students need time to write. So basic in terms of creating readers and writers and yet it was as though these were profound statements. The tide has to turn soon so that we can, as professionals, go more deeply into how to reach and teach our students instead of fighting for time. This is a non-negotiable and we all know it! Imagine a football coach telling kids there would no longer be any time for practice, only for studying practice and imagining what it might be like to use a particular play in a game. The game is here. It is now. It is happening. Thank you for this post. I am passing it on and while I am working on another writing project I find my blog has taken a major backseat. How do you do it all?
    Tomasen

    • Hello Tomasen! Your comments reminded me of what I heard Tom Newkirk say at IRA last year as the opening to his session with Penny about Don Graves: we need to remember where we come from because without that sense of history and legacy we can lose our footing. Unfortunately there’s a whole generation of teachers out there who simply don’t know about the work that people like Graves and Don Murray were doing thirty years ago. And so they’re having to reinvent the wheel. At least, though, they’re recognizing for themselves what you & I take as givens, which, if we’re looking at the glass half full, is far better than what Renee called teachers “drinking the Kool-Aid.” As for writing, you may have noticed that this blog was much shorter than what I usually do—and was so much easier to write than a chapter. But it’s good to know you’ve got a writing project going—though I confess I miss your voice in my inbox.

  3. Yes, the power and the beauty of independent reading! But with all of the guidance, modelling and teaching that happens in a classroom full of reading culture. I am making my way through the links you shared and am just delighted by all of it. I teach little ones – 7 and 8 year olds – Reading Workshop in my classroom has allowed these young readers to leap into their reading lives. I have been so impressed listening into conversations in June by the learning my students have done – about books, about writing, about their preferences and about their goals. Time to read in a room full of books, in a classroom of developing and self-identifying readers full of rich and relevant instruction – it’s transformative. Thank you for continuing the conversation and as always, your brilliant posts.

    • And thank you for reminding me of that amazing Nancie Atwell video, which I’d watched when it first came out. I have to imagine that if some of those people who wrote letters to the Times in response to their article could just be flies on the wall in classrooms like yours they, too, would be moved by the power and the beauty of what can happen when students have choice and great teaching. All it would take is seeing it in action instead of defaulting to myths.

  4. Vicki,
    You hit such a strong chord – Our readers can’t become strong readers without choice in their lives. They can’t be chained to “lexiles” according to some “measurement” which is only the “quantitative” side of Task Complexity triangle. They also can’t be forced to march through whole class texts. Students need choice in topic, genres and even responses to their reading that are similar to adults in real reading situations – book talks, book clubs . . . conversations that may include a bit of food and drink as passions spark deeper thinking.

    Strong, independent readers who can and do choose to read = my wish for the world!

    • It’s clearly my wish, too, Fran. And in addition to appreciating the shout out in your latest post, I loved the work you shared there about biases in supposed objective reporting. Not sure if it’s my age or the times we live in but all the biased reporting on the CCSS makes me no longer think that newspapers are objective, which is why is so incredibly important to helps students become critical thinkers not just consumers of supposed facts.

      • Oh, Vicki, I love that “…supposed facts.” As an industry, the news folks are “creating” the story and shaping it in their own perspective. I don’t find that helpful.

        Kathleen Tolan caused several “wake up” moments for me during July Reading Institute. “Probably only 30% of what you believe you know about history is really true!” That shocked me!

  5. This has been much on my mind, too. Especially since I’ve been doing summer work with students with assigned reading- innovative new ways in which to kill a love of reading. Sigh.

    • And resuscitating old ways that never worked in the first place. I’m hoping that this is a temporary madness, as most of the schools I worked on that more or less abandoned independent reading in favor of whole class texts recognized the cost and are this year reviving independent reading. But it’s really hard to understand why so many don’t get it.

  6. Thanks for the links, Vicki. I shared Penny Kittle’s video with our media center person and she was excited to see it. Just plain reading is so important. I remember Frank Smith (a long time ago) saying that a book can teach a child how to read. ‘Tis true. I’ve seen it happen over and over again. The desire to make sense of something important can be powerful indeed.

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