Why Don’t Our Students Read?

I read two fascinating articles today which really got me thinking. Reading has been my “thing” this school year. I don’t mean to brag, but it’s working. My students read, and read, and read, and read. They are sharing books, discussing them, making recommendations to friends and family. They constantly tell me that they have read more this year than they ever did before. Almost all of my students have read 20+ books since September, and many of them have read 35+.

I see the effects of their reading everyday. Their fluency has improved dramatically. Their own writing has improved, thanks to the abundance of great writers they are reading. Granted, not every book is an award winner (some even make me cringe!), but the point is they are reading for pleasure. And that they are equating reading with pleasure.

If only legislators and administrators could see this.

Jordan Sonnenblick, (author of Drums, Girls, And Dangerous Pie, one of my favorites) has a kick-butt editorial on SLJ.com right now. Entitled Killing Me Softly: No Child Left Behind, Sonnenblick laments the state of education across our nation right now. A former urban teacher in NJ, he visited his colleagues and was told more than once to stay home, keep writing, don’t come back. Why? Because of what has happened to Language Arts classes. Like myself, Sonnenblick loves sharing great literature with students. In this day and age of high-stakes testing, we are tossing out the books for workbooks. What has happened to us?!

No Child Left Behind has done to my school what it has done to untold thousands of urban schools. Our arts programs are gutted, our shop courses are gone, foreign languages are a distant memory. What’s left are double math classes; mandatory after-school drill sessions; the joyless, sweaty drudgery of summer school. Our kids come to us needing more of everything that is joyous about the life of the mind. They need nature walks, field trips, poetry, recess….What I loved most about teaching middle school English was the books, the stories, the poems. I loved putting great thoughts into the hands of my students, and watching what I really, truly saw as a holy communion between child and author, with me as the officiant. And it kills me to know that if I went back, I wouldn’t have much time to teach literature, which is increasingly seen as a frilly extra.

What???? What type of country do we live in now, where students no longer have time to read great books, learn about nature, or otherwise enjoy their learning experience? We have reverted back to the drill ’em and kill ’em rote memorization ideal of the 19th century. I fully believe that 50 years from now this will be looked upon as the worst time for education in American history.

A recent survey of 3 million kids in the U.S. revealed the number of books children read in 2007. Seventh-graders averaged 7.1 books in 2007, while 12th-graders averaged 4.5 books. This number is less than the amount of books I read in a given month. Yet I have seen the evidence in my own classroom. Students enter my room in September and fill our a reading survey. Most of them do not have a favorite book/author and it’s a rare student who has read more than 4 books in the last year. Why are our children not reading?

In my experience, our students are not reading because of NCLB. The joy of reading has been taken out of the classroom and the library. Students are no longer “allowed” to read for pleasure when they must attend mandatory test prep sessions, so that the school looks good on high-stakes testing. They are rarely introduced to the hundreds of new books that are published each year because library budgets have been slashed. Most schools have removed their classroom library budgets, too, so teachers are left to use their own money to stock their classroom library. Students crave new books. Instead, we force our idea of classics on them over and over again, never allowing them to find their own niche in the wide world of books. There are plenty of canon-worthy books that have been published in the last decade. Would it kill us to switch out a Hemingway or two for something like John Green’s Looking for Alaska or Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak?  Both are award-winners that are relevant to our students and their lives.  Both could also be used as a gateway to what adults deem “real literature”.  In other words, not YA literature.

To get back on topic, NCLB is destroying our classrooms and the education we should be giving our children.  Reading Jordan Sonnenblick’s editorial, coupled with the Washington Post’s recent survey, has lit a fire under me.  I hope it does the same for you.  Find a child or teen today.  Share a book with them.  Buy them a book or get them a library card.  Show them the blogs in the kidlitosphere and get them reading.  Help them find their niche and give them back what our schools are taking away.

21 Responses

  1. AMEN!!!

  2. I feel the same way, Sarah! I think it’s tragic that as a country we’re systematically taking away the joy of reading. Don’t they understand that kids who love to read do better in school? Get higher test scores? And have a host of other benefits? It is beyond sad… But I do agree with you that we need to take whatever action we can. Thanks for the call to arms.

  3. Our school district went back to a very traditional math program for next year. It’s depressing, but not a deal-breaker for me. If the pressures of nclb ever caused our district to abandon our literature-based reading/writing workshop model in language arts, I would have to quit teaching.

  4. As a language arts teacher, you are saying NCLB is killing kids reading. Some people say language arts teachers themselves are killing kids reading. See, for example, Laura Miller, “Why Teachers Love Depressing Books,” New York Times, Aug. 22, 2004. “[She] found her 12-year-old son Alex ‘steel himself, again and again, for the joyless task of completing the assigned reading for his “language art” class….'” [ http://www.nytimes.com/2004/08/22/books/review/22MILLERL.html ]

    You may be one of those teachers. You say, “There are plenty of canon-worthy books that have been published in the last decade. Would it kill us to switch out a Hemingway or two for something like John Green’s Looking for Alaska or Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak? Both are award-winners that are relevant to our students and their lives.” The awards for Looking for Alaska come principally from the American Library Association. True to form, the ALA-awarded book for children as young as twelve contains graphic oral s3x. You are suggesting “switch[ing] out a Hemingway or two” for graphic oral s3x, and you are suggesting people should be happy with the switch. Well, how about a comparison:

    “It was like the excitement of the battle except it was clean… In a snowstorm it always seemed, for a time, as though there were no enemies. In a snowstorm the wind could blow a gale; but it blew a white cleanness and the air was full of a driving whiteness and all things were changed and when the wind stopped there would be the stillness. This was a big storm and he might as well enjoy it. It was ruining everything, but he might as well enjoy it.”
    – Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ch. 14

    “I think I want to,” she said, and we kissed a little, and then. And then with me sitting watching The Brady Bunch, watching Marcia Marcia Marcia up to her Brady antics, Lara unbuttoned my pants and pulled my boxers down a little and pulled out my penis.
    “Wow,” she said.
    She looked up at me, but didn’t move, her face nanometers away from my penis. “It’s weird.”
    What do you mean by “weird?”
    “Just beeg, I guess.”
    I could live with that kind of weird. And then she wrapped her hand around it and put it into her mouth.
    – John Green, Looking For Alaska

    Is it possible people changing out a Hemingway or two for a Green are part of the problem, and perhaps more than NCLB?

  5. Safelibraries-

    Before I say anything else, I have to say I DO NOT support censoring literature for our children, or sheltering them from reality. Of course, I believe in letting them read appropriate literature and “Alaska” is not appropriate for every single teen. On the other hand, I have very strong feelings about “Speak” and its effects on young men and women who otherwise do not get to break the silence on rape and sexual assault. Bear in mind, I am not saying to take out every Hemingway, etc. Just swapping in a few modern YA classics would do a world of good for our teens.

    As one of my favorite quotes says: “Children are living stories every day that we would be afraid to let them read”. One size does not fit all when it comes to books. But the point is to get books into the hands of kids and teens. Every teacher, parent, librarian, etc should know their children and students. They should be able to make the decision regarding appropriate in-class novels.

    Please also keep in mind that I am not advocating whole class novels. I am talking about independent reading, reading for pleasure. Something that has sadly fallen by the wayside in most NCLB-obsessed schools.

  6. Okay, TheReadingZone, fair point. But why is sexual activity chosen as the topic that motivates children to read? Why is the ALA awarding more on more of such books so as to encourage more to be published. There’s no better way to get kids to read? I hear the Dangerous Book for Boys is grabbing a lot of attention, and not for inappropriate sex. Harry Potter is phenomenal — again, no inappropriate sexual material. The Invention of Hugo Cabret is very popular particularly for the outstanding pictures. Why are books about boys having sex with animals and not telling their parents considered recommended reading? Why do books containing bestiality result in an ALA leader calling parents racist for trying to keep public schools from recommending the book, just because of the author’s skin color? In fact, exactly why do the ALA big wigs ridicule parents in the first place?

    Look, this is not a left/right issue. Everyone of all political stripes has observed and decried the downward spiral of increasing inappropriate sexual activity in children’s book. See http://www.safelibraries.org/pushers.htm

    Why is this happening? Is this the kind of “authentic literature” we want kids to read? Is everyone being raped by her father and forced to have oral sex with her mother, another ALA-recommended book of kids of all ages?

    Exactly who is the ALA that they get the power to promote such sexualized material and we are all supposed to think the ALA knows best?

  7. Whoa…..I think it’s quite a leap to say that the ALA awards books with intense sexual themes. Are there award-winners with sexual themes? Yes. And there are children living those same stories EVERY DAY. There are also children who don’t read those stories and may not gravitate towards them. I believe you are referencing the teacher who wanted to use “Alaska” in the classroom. Please bear in mind that the teacher was not using the novel as a whole-class book, but rather as a choice novel, which parents would have to sign a permission slip for. Just because a book wins an award that looks at books for teens (13-19) does not mean that particular book is appropriate for all of those ages. The Printz awards phenomenal literature, not literature that is “one size fits all”. The same goes for the Newbery. I find that many of the Newbery books are too complicated/difficult for eight year olds, yet the award is for ages 8-12. It’s a matter of opinion.

    I do agree with you in terms of the phenomenal literature that is out there and appropriate for all ages. The novels you named are all phenomenal. And I was not trying to make the point that new “controversial” books should be brought into the classroom. Those two books were the first that popped into mind. There are other new novels out there for YA and middle grades that are perfectly clean reads and would be wonderful in the classroom. Books like “Greetings from Nowhere” or “Hugo Cabret”.

    I think you are generalizing quite a bit when it comes to recommended reading lists from ALA. Those lists are not mandated or required- they are recommended. Parents are responsible for the upbringing of their children and should be monitoring their reading, much as they should monitor their television and computer time. Any parent who allows their child to read books without any supervision (supervision, not forcing them to read particular books, etc) or discussion is asking for trouble. In fact, parents should always discuss their own reading with their children to facilitate and open dialogue and model a love of reading.

    Sexual activity in books is not the only theme that comes up over and over. However, please keep in mind that many teens are sexually active and are living those stories. In fact, too many teens are experiencing lives that many adults would be horrified to have them read about or see on TV. If a book can help that teen reach out for help or convince them to keep going, then it’s well worth any controversy it may cause elsewhere. It all comes back to parents, teachers, and librarians knowing children and teens. An ALA YA recommended novel is appropriate for 13-19 yr olds. It will skew to one age, and a good teacher or librarian will know that!

  8. I’m not sure where to begin, though I do feel compelled to jump into the conversation. I suppose I should preface what I say by disclosing one thing: I, like TheReadingZone, don’t agree with censorship of books.

    Now that I’ve said that and you know my bias, let me say this: When it comes to books for teens with more explicit sexual content, or violent content, or hard-to-reconcile ethical issues, I do think that there needs to be conversation taking place around the book. And I don’t think that this conversation will come easily with adults — not with parents or with teachers. I’m not sure what that says about the ways our teens interact with their grown-ups, but I am fairly certain it’s true. How many teens do you know who would discuss the scene exerpted above from Looking for Alaska with a parent? But I really do believe that to understand these books, to create personal meaning from the text — in this case, to understand what was going on for the characters at this precise moment in time, how the past led up to it, how they may deal with the repercusions — our kids need to talk. And they can’t do that if these books are considered “not okay” in any way. I agree that a large number of kids are living these books each day, and how, then, will it effect them if we tell them that the content is too… too anything? To them, it’s real.

    My thinking, then, is as follows, and this ties back to what is happening in our schools because of NCLB. Books groups, literature circles (whatever you want to call them) need to become central in our LA classes. If kids choose to read Looking for Alaska (for example), wouldn’t it be great if they had a group of peers they could talk to? If they could ask questions, make observation, think out loud with others? Would this make the book more or less “safe”? I argue that it would make the entire reading experience a positive one — their reading would be public and praised and they would be expected to talk and think about the book instead of reading it…

    I think that teachers need to read it all and be able to anticipate the places where readers will have questions or feel some uncomfortable things as they read through the book. Cultivating a culture of conversation and of acceptance is really what teaching literature is about — well beyond the basic skills taught through NCLB.

  9. Jenny-

    AMEN! 🙂

  10. I just posted but I don’t see it. Did some filter cut it out?

  11. Safelibraries-

    No sign of your post on this end. It seems to be lost in the great unknown!

  12. “Cultivating a culture of conversation and of acceptance is really what teaching literature is about — well beyond the basic skills taught through NCLB.”

    Absolutely! Well said, Jenny. And well said, Reading Zone, on:

    ” If a book can help that teen reach out for help or convince them to keep going, then it’s well worth any controversy it may cause elsewhere. It all comes back to parents, teachers, and librarians knowing children and teens. ”

    I completely agree with that. There are plenty of books that I don’t give to my 12-year-old nieces. But do I want those books to be available to them when they’re a bit older? Of course. And I very much care that those books be available to the kids who are dealing with the issues, and find understanding in the books. I would argue that a book like 13 Reasons Why, which certainly has some sexualized and some difficult content, could be life-saving for some kids. Literally.

    SafeLibraries, thanks for sparking some interesting discussion.

  13. You are welcome, Jen Robinson. Credit goes to the other participants as well, especially TheReadingZone. Sometimes I make very similar comments in a very similar fashion on other blogs. Depending on the person who owns the blog, even if they are free speech advocates, I find these free speech advocates remove my comments. Author Janice Harayda is the most recent example. My response to her One-Minute Book Reviews blog “Ewww, It’s ‘Purplicious’ by Victoria Kann and Elizabeth Kann” appeared for a while then it disappeared. I contacted her politely and got no response. So really the credit for the conversation goes to everybody here for honestly discussing the issues and for avoiding or even eliminating ad hominem argument.

    Okay, now I will attempt to repost that other message that disappeared into thin air. Only I might spell things differently to avoid possible filters that may have blocked the comment in the first place.

  14. It didn’t take again! Will try again laterish.

  15. TheReadingZone, I can tell that you are a reasonable person, not one under the ALA’s sway. How do I know this? Because you did not believe what I said. You said, “Whoa…..I think it’s quite a leap to say that the ALA awards books with intense sexual themes.” That shows me you do not believe that. And that tells me if I could prove it to you, you might believe it. So I’m going to provide evidence that, to me, is clear and convincing.

    Consider the following:

    “The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), the fastest growing division of the American Library Association (ALA), has announced a list of books to recommend to teens, both avid and reluctant readers, who are looking for books like Cecily von Ziegesar’s ‘Gossip Girl’ series.

    “‘The books on this list are perfect for when your readers have finished with every “Gossip Girl” title in your library and are clamoring for another book like the Gossip Girl,’ said YALSA President Pam Spencer Holley.”

    “YALSA Recommends Books For Young Adults Who Enjoy ‘Gossip Girl’ Series,” ALA Press Release, 11 Apr 2006. [ http://www.ala.org/ala/pressreleases2006/april2006/YALSAYAbooksGossipGi.htm ]

    Continuing in next comment…

  16. …Continuung from above:

    The press release goes on to say, “For nearly 50 years YALSA has been the world leader in selecting books, videos, and audiobooks for teens.” Fine. But why not also reveal that at a certain point along that timeline YALSA started recommending sexually inappropriate books for children, accompanied by glowing reviews that intentionally hide such inappropriate material? You buy these books in a bookstore and the store signs advise of inappropriate content. The ALA has no such advisories. This is another example why the ALA should no longer be considered authoritative when it comes to the recommendation of children’s books. Here’s another:

    “Pam Spencer Holley of the [ALA and leader of YALSA for youth, said] … [s]he’s happy to see teen girls reading. Eventually, girls who are reading Gossip Girls will move on to better books, she says. ‘Unless you read stuff that’s perhaps not the most literary, you’ll never understand what good works are,’ says Holley. …. Besides, she says, what’s the worst thing that can happen? ‘Nobody complains about the adult women who read Harlequin romances.'” Source: Racy Reading; Gossip Girl Series is Latest Installment in Provocative Teen Fiction, and It’s As Popular As It Is Controversial, by Linda Shrieves, 6 Aug 2005. [ http://archive.southcoasttoday.com/daily/08-05/08-06-05/b01li276.htm ]

    The date of the YALSA president’s admissions regarding reading material that is “not the most literary” PRECEDES the date that the same YALSA president created the ALA list of similar books! The ALA is implicitly admitting that it compiles lists of books that are both sexually inappropriate (“Nobody complains about the adult women who read Harlequin romances”) and “not the most literary” as well. This is an authoritative source for book selections?

    “Whoa…..I think it’s quite a leap to say that the ALA awards books with intense sexual themes.” Actually, it’s not a leap. It is almost a documented fact, courtesy of reporter Linda Shrieves. I hope you can at least see why I have a reasonable basis for the statements I previously made. For more about the book the ALA YALSA president holds out as exemplary material entitled to the creation of a similar list of such books, see Naomi Wolf’s New York Times article that PRECEDED the new ALA list. “Young Adult Fiction: Wild Things,” 12 Mar. 2006, The New York Times. [ http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/12/books/review/12wolf.html ]

    Continuing in next comment…

  17. …Continuing from above:

    Regarding the school assigning an option that first required parental approval, I see no problem if the consent is informed consent. However, the book would not have come to the attention of that teacher in the first place if it were not for the ALA award.

    Regarding parents needing to be aware of things, you are correct. But right now ALA-awarded books are considered ideal without the need for parents to question the ALA. The parents are aware the books are award winning books and that’s enough to know. Parents are not yet aware that the ALA now awards books that parents would not want their children to read if they knew the true contents. That’s the rub.

    Parents are supposed to judge books for their own children, while at the same time parents are misled as to the contents of those books. If this were a medical case and the patient was not provided with informed consent, a claim for malpractice would be made and possibly established. But when parents are misled and the children are reading books containing material to which the parents would object had they been fully informed, and when those books are being pipelined to children by public schools, and when those books are being pipelined to public schools by the ALA, there is a very serious problem. And nothing is done.

    Worse, parents who finally get fully informed sometimes speak out, and when they do they are roundly attacked as censors, even racists. The ALA has thoroughly saturated the land with the propaganda that the removal from public schools of pervasively vulgar material is censorship and book banning (Banned Books Week anyone?). The truth is Pico v. Board of Education allows for this very thing. [ http://laws.findlaw.com/us/457/853.html ] So why the disparagement of the parents? Why does the ALA feel the need to belittle such people? [ Example: http://www.safelibraries.org/group_targets_black_authors_book_response25jan2007.htm ] Exactly what is the ALA hiding by using ad hominem argument?

    So, TheReadingZone, I think you will consider what I have said and keep it in the back of your mind for when you see these issues for yourself.

  18. That was the comment. Apparently I had to break it into three pieces. Thanks for your patience.

  19. I don’t think NCLB censors books because of any particular content, I think it discourages the use of literature in general because as teachers we are supposed to have students who perform well on tests that are made up of short stories and short articles and other short selections followed by a list of questions to be answered. The catalogues of teaching resources are full of books full of these short articles and the use of anthologies rather than novels, I think, is becoming more prevelant rather than less as teachers push their students to be great at one thing rather than exposing them to lots of things and letting them figure out what they want to be great at. Concentrating on so many short selections and following up with lists of questions not only sucks the joy out of the reading, but also lessens a child’s reading stamina. I teach in the primary grades and I believe kids have to build their stamina in reading and writing just like they do in P.E. That is why 500 page books aren’t written for 6 year olds.

    Anyway, my point is it isn’t a censorship issue in my opinion, but rather an issue of turning reading into a task rather than a joyful activity.

  20. LisaC, I understand your point completely, and I agree.

  21. […] about it in the Literacy and Reading News blog.Keep reading. Over in The Reading Zone, Sarah posted Why Don’t Our Students Read? She draws on the findings in the Renaissance Learning study, as well as some other recent analysis […]

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