Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Most Common Question Parents Ask Me

I chose "Leafstrewn" as a pseudonym for the town I teach in partly because the town is wealthy and has a lot of trees.  I was also thinking of the wonderful passage in The Scarlet Letter in which Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale meet on a "leafstrewn" forest track.  It only occurs to me now that this place is also strewn with a lot of leaves in the sense of pages from books.

This is a literate, text-heavy town.  It's got one of the most highly-educated populations in the United States, if not the universe.  It supports an excellent independent bookstore that destroyed a Barnes and Noble in head to head competition.  We love books and value reading.  And yet...

The most common question I get on Parents' Night is this: "How can I get my child to read more?"  The question comes in different forms ("Why doesn't Johnny read as much anymore?"; "Can you please make Janie read more?"), but most versions have the word "more," and all contain the word "read,"stressed and plaintively elongated.  "She doesn't reeeeeaaad anymore..." The plaintive tones of the question always remind me of the father in Willa Cather's novel who shows the narrator a book and  pleads, "entreatingly," with an earnestness the narrator says he will never forget, to "Te-e-ach, te-e-ach my Antonia!"

The parents I see at parents night may be unusual--we are in Leafstrewn, after all--but I don't think so. My non-readers come in all types, and they come from all different families.  I have had immigrant parents tell me in their heavily accented English that they despair over how little their children are reading.  I have had upper-middle-class lawyers and professors ask how they can help their children read more--which books will "work"?  I have had blue-collar parents ask me exactly the same thing.

These non-readers come in all types, and there are many reasons for their non-reading.  I have had some of my best, most literary students tell me that they hardly ever read for pleasure over the school year, because they just have too much work.  I have students who seem unable to sit still, because their bodies are going haywire for some reason.  I have students whose IEPs and psychological testing describe cognitive impairments that make for extraordinarily slow processing speeds.  I have students who tell me that they haven't read a book--any book--since sixth grade.  All of these children have trouble reading--and nearly all of their parents wish they would read more.

The parents' question --How can I get my child to read more?-- points to their sense of what's important. They sometimes ask about writing, though not nearly as much as reading, but they almost never ask me about skills, about strategies, about vocabulary.  Instead, what they want is for the kids to do what maybe they used to do until puberty came along, or what maybe they never did, or what they have always done but could do better--that is, read.

In this desire to just, at least, have their children read, these parents are different from the National Reading Panel of 2000, and from the federal government's "What Works" Clearinghouse, which pretends to report on proven educational strategies .  The "What Works" report on adolescent literacy, written by a panel of experts from Stanford and other universities and school systems, goes on for dozens of pages about "explicit instruction" in this and that, but it never once goes to the heart of the matter and says that students should be reading more than they are currently doing.

I believe these parents are right.  Reading is the most important academic skill, and in order for students to get better at reading, the most important thing is that they actually read, and that they read texts that they can read and will read.  I suspect that many of our weakest readers essentially never read, and that attempts to improve literacy are very likely to fail because they will do almost everything except ensure that the students are actually reading. 

Over the next few weeks, I'll post some thoughts about why reading is the most important activity for students to spend time doing, how much our students actually do read, how we could get them to read more, and what we can do with the kids who manage to avoid reading altogether.  These are key questions that I think all English teachers should be asking.  Schools have kids 6 hours a day, 180 days a year.  If kids aren't reading, it's largely our fault.  As Dick Allington says:

“We have typically organized schools such that struggling readers spend large parts of their days in environments where there are few texts they can actually read.  We even create instructional environments, including interventions, that offer very limited opportunities to read.”

How can we make sure that our students are reading more?  How can we help students find books that they will actually read?  How can we make sure students have time to read?  How can we restructure school time so that it ensures actual reading?

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