I saw a little table in a Richard Allington book (the data was from Anderson, Wilson and Fielding's excellent 1988 study) that showed how much time students spent reading outside of school:
Reading Volume of Fifth Grade Students at Different Levels of Achievement
Achievement Minutes of Words per
Percentile Reading per day year
90th 40.4 2, 357, 000
50th 12.9 601, 000
10th 1.6 51, 000
This data fits with my sense that below-average students read very, very little outside of school--less than ten minutes a day--and something like an order of magnitude less than their high-achieving peers. Of course cause and effect are intertwined here--the good readers read more partly because it's more fun for them--but it is easy to imagine that the lower-skilled students are not going to improve that much if they're only reading for a minute every day.
My own observations have convinced me that not much reading happens in school, but that for the reading that does happen, the same disparities exist; good readers are spending much, much more time reading in school than poor readers, and the gap just widens.
Imagine a kid who practices the piano for 40 minutes a day, and another who practices for 1.6 minutes a day. No matter how high quality the instruction the two kids are offered, the kid who plays 1.6 minutes a day is not going to get much better. And even if the instruction is not great, the kid who plays for 40 minutes will get better.
So, since reading is the most important academic skill, I believe the single most important thing schools should be doing is figuring out how to get our weaker students to read more. How? I think there are two main things we should be doing: providing kids with books they will enjoy reading; and giving them uninterrupted quiet time to just sit and read. These two things may seem obvious, but they are not easy, and my own school is not very good at either one.
First, we have to provide students with books. This is much less simple than it sounds. In providing books, as with so many other things, school offers a farcically stingy, shoddy, and burdensome imitation of what happens in upper-middle-class families. Many parents bring their kids to the library, buy them books, suggest books they themselves liked, get recommendations from friends, and so on.
My daughter goes with her elementary-school class to the library every week. Her mother or I take her to the library once a week or so as well. She has been read to every night since she was an infant. She sees her parents and brother reading every day. We don't have television or video games in our house. There are hundreds of books--her own books--in her room. When her brother turned twelve a few weeks ago, she got some little sister presents from her parents and grandparents, including at least nine new books, books that were chosen specifically to appeal to her individual tastes.
Even so, she didn't learn to read until she was seven. She is now a great reader, loves reading, and reads every day, and but I wonder where she would be if she weren't growing up in such a text-rich household. It is very important that our classrooms--even in high schools!--be places where books are plentiful and appealing.
For it is not enough that we have books around; we need to make sure that the books are appropriately leveled and appealing, and we need to make individual recommendations. Again, I think of my own children. Last fall, my son was bored. His computer time was up, and he didn't want to go out and play basketball. I said, "Why don't you read something."
He said, "I don't have anything to read."
I said, "Hm." We were in our living room, which has a wall like this (and an alcove with two more such walls):
My son's room, twenty feet away, has a wall like this:
And there are several more bookshelves upstairs. We have thousands of books in our house that my son has not read. We even have hundreds of books at the right level. And he loves to read. When he said, "I don't have anything to read," he meant, "I don't have a book in my hands right now to read."
So I went over to our bookshelf and got down one of my own favorite books, about a guy who, with the help of resourceful villagers, survives in the winter in Norway while being chased by Nazis (We Die Alone, by David Howarth). "Here," I said. "Try this."
He read it in a day.
Lots of kids seem like reluctant readers, as my son was that afternoon. But I think most kids would really love to read more, if they were only provided with the books and the time. We just have to have the books available in the classroom--not only in the library (to which we often don't even bring our classes, and where the books are hardly the main focus). And we have to have books that they CAN read (not Shakespeare, not To Kill a Mockingbird). And we have to actually put the books into their hands.
I'm not sure I have ever actually handed a child one of Sonya Sones's books and not had the kid end up reading all of it. We should be taking our students to the library once a month, at least, and handing them books to take out. We should have large classroom libraries full of appealing and readable books. We should have book swaps in our classes every month or so. We should be distributing books left and right--often actually giving them away. How much do we spend per child on the photocopying I do? On air-conditioning? On computers? Too much! We should use that money and give the kids vouchers to bookstores, vouchers that can only be spent by them on real books. We should give the kids books at the end of the year, to read over the summer.
So do I do all these things? Not yet, not fully. Almost none of us high school teachers do. Why not? If kids don't read, they will not get better at reading. But if kids are provided with books and with time, they will read. And then maybe schools won't have to help kids cheat on their reading tests!