Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Getting Kids to Read

This past Sunday's New York Times had two interesting pieces on the same general topic -- how teachers can encourage students to read on their own.

An essay by Susan Straight in the New York Times Book Review laments the impact of Accelerated Reading, a software program that assigns point values to books based upon length and difficulty. Schools using this program require that students read books totalling a specific point value. The problem, Straight says, is that the way in which points are assigned undervalues many of the books that have opened the eyes of generations of children to the joys of reading.

Meanwhile, the main section of Sunday's Times had a lengthy article by Motoko Rich on an approach called reading workshop, which replaces the traditional classroom practice of every student reading the same book at the same time. Instead, students select their own reading material with some guidance from the classroom teacher, with the goal of having children read more because they have a say in what they are reading.

Both articles used Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird to help make their point. Susan Straight points out that when her daughter was assigned this book as part of a class reading project she told her mother that it was one of the best books she'd ever read. Straight notes that the point value for this book under the Accelerated Reading program was only 14 points; Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was 44 points. Hamlet was valued at 7 points.

In the article on the reading workshop program, one teacher favoring the "kids' choice" approach noted that when she assigned To Kill a Mockingbird she found that some kids "just don't get into it."

The debate will go on, and parents and schools will continue to struggle with how to turn a generation of tech savvy kids into real readers, the kind who want to curl up with a book-- or a Kindle -- and get lost in a world of imagination.

Meanwhile, whatever reading approach your child's school takes, we suggest a few ideas every family can implement. Read to your children, even those who are old enough to read to themselves. Visit the library together and help guide your child to books that captured your imagination as a child. Talk to your child about what he is reading. Borrow his book and read it yourself, so you can see what appeals to him about it. Let your child see you curled up with a book and hear you talking about what you are reading. In short, create a home where reading and books are valued and discussed and where the love of reading thrives.