What Counts As Reading?

Beloved author Jon Scieszka, who was just named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress and Children’s Book Council, recently wrote a guest column in The New York Times entitled “Turn Page on Kids’ Book Boredom”.   I think the four major tips he offers are simple yet powerful:

1. Let the reader choose what they like and want to read. Fiction doesn’t have to be everyone’s favorite. I’ll never forget my own son’s reaction reading “Little House on the Prairie” (a favorite of many other readers): “Are they really going to spend this whole chapter making a door?”

2. Expand the definition of “reading” to include nonfiction, humor, graphic novels, magazines, action adventure and, yes, even Web sites. If a child enjoys reading, the focus of his or her reading will naturally broaden. He won’t read only shark books forever.

3. Be a good reading role model. Show your kids what you like to read, what you don’t like to read, how you choose what you read. Let kids see you reading.

4. Avoid demonizing television, computer games, and new technologies. Electronic media may compete for kids’ attention, but we are not going to get kids reading by badmouthing other entertainment. Instead, talk with kids about how reading can make a world in ways that movies and games can’t – and admit that TV and games can do things books can’t.

In a separate interview with School Library Journal, Scieszka also offers this piece of advice to teachers and librarians:

The thing teachers and librarians can do is to really step back and take a look at their required-reading lists: they don’t have to be all fiction; they can include alternative genres—and they should absolutely include some nonfiction.

Humor is another genre that gets slighted. You don’t see that many funny books on required-reading lists. Thank God Holes got the Newbery Medal, because otherwise I think people would have just skipped over it and said, “Ah, Louis Sachar, he writes some funny stuff.” People often think that humorous books aren’t really legitimate. So all of those things—nonfiction, graphic novels, science fiction, humor—should be on teachers’ and librarians’ lists.

I found these articles and comments interesting for two reasons.  First, it speaks to the issue of the general concern in our country about the decline in reading among young people.  More importantly, though, these articles raise the question of “What counts as reading”?

In elementary and middle school, students’ reading choices are often dictated by their “STAR”/Accelerated Reader Level (or something comparable) or a Lexile.  While the intentions behind these scores are typically honorable, I believe the consequences of using these kinds of scores/programs have long term negative effects.  I am always fascinated by high school students’ reflections on their experiences with Accelerated Reader.  Never have I heard one say, “It made me want to be a lifelong reader.”  Instead, I either hear immense relief at being liberated from the restraints of the program and requirements imposed by teachers or I hear students say because there are no longer any external rewards (“prizes”), they see no reason to read.  I have heard this over and over again both as a high school English teacher and a high school librarian.   During the one year I did elementary library, I can’t tell you how often I cringed when a well-meaning teacher would tell a student he or she could not check out a book because it was not the “right” level. 

I was a voracious reader as a child (at home and in school), but I can assure you I might not have been a lifelong reader had AR or something comparable been imposed on me in my early years. 

On the flip side of the K-12 spectrum, I have been a witness and a participant in debates about reading lists for high school students in English courses and what choices should be included on those lists.  Deep rooted traditions, educators’ personal experiences, district mandates, and political agendas drive who and what makes the final cut on these lists.   In recent years, I can’t tell you how many times I wished there was more room in the curriculum for more contemporary literature.   This “wish” was expressed by other media specialists at our recent January district meeting.

Yes, there are many classics worth our students’ time, but these classics often crowd out high quality and engaging modern literature that speaks to our students.  One example would be Nancy Springer’s I am Mordred.  During 2006-07, I elected to use this novel in place of some of the more traditional Arthurian legend novels on our district’s reading list (I will add that Mordred is an approved novel on the district list, but from what I have gathered in talking to other English teachers in our district, it is not one that many people are aware of or may not be perceived as “higher level” reading).  In the three times I read this novel with three different sets of 10th grade students, I was amazed, awed, and humbled by the connections my students made with this text and how it fired up their interest in Arthurian lore.   Not to “dis” other great Arthurian texts, but The Once and Future Kingjust does not speak to many young adults the way that Nancy Springer’s novel does.  Furthermore, one group of students was so perplexed by unanswered questions they had about the novel that we emailed Nancy Springer our “wonderings”.  We were thrilled and delighted to receive a response to *every* question within two days!  Hearing from a real life author was thrilling to my students and validated their thoughtful questions about the novel!  Susan Lester and Kim Blakenship, two fellow English teachers who used this novel with their students, have had the same experiences:  students who may have never enjoyed reading or read a book as an adolescent, totally got into this novel. 

As Scieszka points out, it takes only one great reading experience to hook a child or teenager on reading.   As a librarian, I try to provide a diverse range of books and magazines that meet the reading interests and needs of our students.  One of the most liberating things about being a high school librarian is helping students find a book or author that the student wants to read for fun, not because he or she has to do so!  Nothing is more thrilling to see the delighted surprise and excitement in the eyes of a teenager who connects to a genre or author!

The question, “What counts as reading?” is not a new one.  In my research as a M.Ed. student and Ed.S. student at the University of Georgia, the question was explored in my Language and Literacy Education classes.  Plenty of healthy debate as well as qualitative research studies abound regarding this question, yet the conversation of “What counts as reading?” does not seem to be reaching many veteran teachers or even or new teachers who are spanking brand new out of undergrad teacher education. 

I hope this question and conversations about it will become more commonplace as we try to balance traditional values and beliefs about reading with the “new literacies” that are evolving right before our eyes.  I hope that our libraries will be places where there are many and diverse answers to “What counts as reading?”!

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