In the Classroom
Developing Lifelong Readers Before It’s Too Late
November 30, 2017
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Casey Ward

In 2015, the percentage of American adults who read for pleasure fell to its lowest ever mark. Books, especially complex works of literature, are being ignored by a large portion of our population. Worse still, those citizens who hold only a high school diploma are three times less likely than those with a college degree to have read a book in any format in the past 12 months. Only 60% of high school graduates reported reading a book “in whole or part.” While we may assume the best – perhaps they joined the thousands of others who abandoned Ulysses after the first 300 pages – it is far more likely that their reported reading consisted of a few recipes from a Bobby Flay cookbook.

Further, a clear correlation exists between economic attainment and reading. One’s income is in direct proportion to one’s reading habits; the more you read, the more you earn, and vice versa.

Aside from economic concerns, value exists in having a well-read citizenry. Research shows that we are becoming a more divisive, less empathetic country. Books, especially literary fiction, can help combat this problem. Literary fiction boosts the ability of people to see the world from another person’s perspective. It grants us access to another person’s experience, their actions, thoughts, feelings, and motivations. It makes us more understanding. It makes us more compassionate.

Our schools, for all of their investments in acronymic strategies, have struggled to improve reading culture and performance, as recent assessment reports indicate. Reading proficiency on the 8th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) dropped two points between 2013 and 2015. For those concerned with the achievement gap, this statistic is sobering: Only 17% of all African American students scored at or above Proficient on 12th grade NAEP. In the state of Tennessee in 2016, English End of Course (EOC) exam scores revealed that only 30% of all students are “On Track.” In 2012, 52% of students met the college benchmark on the ACT Reading section; in 2016, only 44% met the benchmark. Furthermore, 2017 AP Literature scores were lowest in a decade. Nearly all metrics at the national and state level reveal a downward trend.

Teachers expect that students should be reading more during their free time, but studies show that students are not. As long ago as 1988, studies found that middle school students spent less than 2% of their free time reading. We can only assume that this number has decreased with the proliferation of game consoles and advent of cellphones. The U.S. Department of Education found that the more students read for fun, the higher their reading scores. If this study, in stating the obvious, seems like an infuriating waste of taxpayer dollars, know that many teachers either do not believe or act on its conclusions.  Teachers may acknowledge the value of independent reading, but very few allow time in class to read.

Reasons for the resistance to independent reading often revolve around testing. Teachers worry that if students are spending class time reading for pleasure, perhaps even books of their own choosing, then they are not effectively preparing for high-stakes tests. Administrators can contribute to this misconception, especially when they equate visible activity with learning. Teachers have reported being harshly evaluated by administrators for having students read silently for extended periods of time.

Given the state of reading culture and performance, and the acknowledged need for better reading habits, barriers to independent reading in the classroom must be surmounted.  Allowing students time to read in class and choice in what they read, while also creating materials and activities that are flexible enough to apply to different types of texts but are nevertheless aligned to state standards, can meet the needs and desires of students and administrators.  We cannot continue to throw up our hands and say, “I wish I could give them time to read” and expect our country’s reading habits to change.

Some might argue that today’s students watch the news, that they get their updates of the world through different mediums, different platforms. They learn by doing through video games. They get their stories through television and movies. They are the children of the internet, borne forward at the speed of the information superhighway. Reading is being rightly eclipsed by newer forms of experience and knowledge acquisition.

If we are becoming a less empathetic country, who does that benefit? Who profits from our divisiveness? Who profits from our inability or unwillingness to understand someone else’s point of view? Who profits from our growing ignorance? Who will exploit, who will prey upon our new tribalism, our fractured landscape of blacks and whites, rich and poor, police and citizens, men and women? Can we not see that our compassion and understanding are declining as these alternative forms of communication are in the ascendance?     

Here’s the good news. More books are being published than ever before.  There is more information available to our students than at any other time in the history of the world. This generation has access to more public libraries than any other. Resources unimaginable to previous generations of students stand at the ready.

Imagine, for a moment, the shepherd boys and girls of ancient Greece, alone on the hills with their flocks, looking out at the waters of the Mediterranean, unable to understand their movements, the creatures swimming in them. Imagine the cabin boys of merchant ships from Portugal, exploring the vast known world, yet bound to a tiny sphere because of their profound illiteracy – world travelers who speak one tongue, and only a few useful words of that language. Or the son of a Salem preacher, who watches with righteous anger as a “witch” climbs the gallows, whose certainty in his father’s judgment is absolute because he’s never been exposed to any ideas that might challenge these beliefs.

Where but books will your students find the knowledge to transcend these destinies of ignorance?

Casey Ward currently serves as the Literacy Teacher Development Specialist at Hillsboro High School. After working in higher education as an instructor of Rhetoric and Composition for six years, he became a Nashville Teaching Fellow and a founding 7th grade teacher at Nashville Prep Charter School. Since then, he has worked for high schools in Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) as an English teacher and Nashville Teaching Fellows as a session writer and teacher development coach. Casey is a member of the International Literacy Association. He holds a B.A. in English from Michigan State University and M.F.A. in Creative Writing from The Ohio State University. He also serves as a Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow, engaging his colleagues in providing classroom feedback to the Tennessee Department of Education on public education policy issues.

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