Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Sunday Reflections: Growing Children as Readers

Every piece of recent research points to the fact that, above all else, freedom of choice is the key to engaging children with reading and turning them into lifelong learners. And not just choice of reading material, although that is of primary importance, but choice of what to read, when to read, how to read, and even why to read. Children (and by this I am referring to the broadest possible definition of the term, 0-18 year olds) need to choose their own reading materials. They need autonomy in choosing topic, format, length, and reading level. They thrive if they are given a choice of where to read and how to read – in a group or alone, in a chair, on the floor, one book at a time, several at once, devouring a series in order or jumping in at the middle, reading a book only after seeing a the movie, or vice versa – these are all key factors for some readers. Determining for themselves when it is best to read (within reason) gives them ownership over their reading. And finally, they need to choose why to read, and that choice needs to be for themselves. Children will only get so far as readers if they are reading to please an adult, fulfill a requirement, or earn a prize. To build lifelong readers, we need to engage children at their most basic, selfish level. This is something I DO FOR ME.

This is not to say that we sit back and just let children flounder about on their own. There are a myriad of ways to encourage children to take ownership of their own reading life. Simply generating excitement for reading materials and authors is a positive step in the right direction. Author visits, character visits, readers advisory, eye-catching and varied displays, and ample time to explore their own interests are important in the development of children as readers.

Children can also thrive in an environment where they monitor and track their own reading progress, if it is handled correctly. Children should be sitting down regularly with an engaged and knowledgeable adult who will help them determine and set their own goals for their reading life and set up a way for them to keep track of where they are in terms of reaching their own goals. Regular ‘temperature check’ visits with this adult will help them to determine if they need to adjust their goals and to celebrate their progress. In an ideal world, this adult would be a parent or caregiver. In a practical world, many parents aren’t able to provide this support to their children, and even more feel unqualified to do it, whether they are or not.

Public library youth services librarians are key to combatting this particular issue. Many public library initiatives exist to both develop children as readers and develop parents as partners in reading. Programs like Every Child Ready to Read and 1000 Books Before Kindergarten seek to provide both child and parent with requisite skills to help children become successful, independent, lifelong readers. The library professionals and paraprofessionals who champion these programs are the first wave of those who can make a difference in the reading lives of children. Unfortunately, many families either don’t have access to or don’t know how or why to access library youth services programming. I make an effort every semester to worm my way into the early childhood caregiver unit in our life skills classes to raise awareness of the services public libraries supply and how to access them. The vast majority of the students I interact with in these classes are surprised to learn of these resources.

Most often, however, this role of the adult partner in reading is expected of the school teacher. This expectation is becoming increasingly less reasonable as student to teacher ratio continues to increase in conjunction with time constraints within the teaching day brought on by a focus on ‘test readiness’ to the exclusion of anything else. As well, there has been a culture of ‘do more with less’ in our schools that dates back to well before the latest economic downturn in 2008 and still continues today. Teachers are paid poorly, and many choose to change careers before they reach a state of having mastered the craft. Even those who stay are at a severe disadvantage as staff development funds dwindle and there are fewer long term career teachers to mentor them.

In the face of these realities, many schools turn to programs that are meant to incentivize reading as well as measure student progress. These programs make sense on the surface. After all, in our current culture of measurement as the pinnacle of success, anything that is not readily quantifiable, such as a student’s long term engagement with reading and learning, is not worth investing in. These programs are used to determine both what (at which reading level) and how (how often, how many books) children are to read. They also supply the why of reading – for points, which in turn become either grades or awards certificates, or entry to rewards programs. The end result of these programs is a restriction of student choice. They cannot choose to read books that aren’t included within the program. They may be denied the opportunity to read something simply because it is not on their level. Perhaps worst of all, they cannot re-read beloved books (because you can only get credit once.)

So, why do schools turn to these packaged reading programs? Lack of understanding, misinformation, and our current educational culture all play their part, but the real culprit is expediency. They are a shortcut that promises results. They may even provide results in the short term, but their long term impact can be devastating. Is this really what we want for our children? And what can we do when faced with these programs?

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may be familiar with my strategy. If you are a parent, I would exhort you to read everything you can about the subject and then share this information with your children’s teachers and the administrators at their schools (who are often the driving force behind use of these programs.) Don’t allow your frustration over the impact of these programs to immobilize you. Ask to meet with your child’s teachers and calmly explain your position as you express your desire to opt your child out of this program. Take a stand against the harm these programs cause. If you are a public librarian, look into ways to form partnerships with your local schools to have access to those making these decisions. Offer to provide training, guest speakers, or alternative programs. Continue to work to educate the parents and caregivers of the children you serve.

Unlike the ‘shortcut to results’ programs, this is a long game we are playing. We need to pace ourselves and realize that gains and changes will take time. There will be setbacks as well as victories. We need to support each other and work together to make this difference for our children.


Text complexity in the Language Arts classroom, a school librarian’s perspective

Last week, NPR published a piece online to accompany an on air piece from All Things Considered regarding text complexity in assigned student reading and the reading students do in their free time. That piece is available here: http://www.npr.org/blogs/monkeysee/2013/06/11/190669029/what-kids-are-reading-in-school-and-out. I would encourage you (against conventional wisdom) to read the comments.

While I realize the piece is mostly addressing reading in high school, the new CCSS emphasis on text complexity affects education at all levels, and the piece has been causing a whirlwind of thoughts in my mind over the dual need to prepare students to read, interpret, and analyze complex text and to prepare them to be active and engaged lifelong learners. Both are truly needed if we are to produce students who will be highly functional contributing members of society.  The key is figuring out how to do one without losing the other.

So first, let’s address the issue of assigning a text complexity ‘score’ to any particular piece of writing. Leaving aside my issues with their misuse, there are two main leveling scores in common use (ie, you don’t need extra funds to access the score). The first is Renaissance Learning’s Book Level score. Here, from their web site, is an explanation of how they assign a Book Level using the ATOS system:

“ATOS is the product of an intensive research process and takes into account the most important predictors of text complexity—average sentence length, average word length, word difficulty level, and total number of words in a book or passage. It is reported on a grade-level scale so that both student achievement and books share the same easy-to-interpret metric.”

More information can be found here: http://www.renlearn.com/default.aspx. The second is the Lexile Measure, explained on their web site:

“A Lexile text measure is based on two strong predictors of how difficult a text is to comprehend: word frequency and sentence length. Many other factors affect the relationship between a reader and a book, including its content, the age and interests of the reader, and the design of the actual book. The Lexile text measure is a good starting point in the book-selection process, with these other factors then being considered.”

More information about Lexile Measures is available here: http://www.lexile.com/ .

As a middle school librarian, I believe that the Lexile statement addresses the ‘elephant in the room’ – measuring word and sentence difficulty only addresses one part of the equation. For instance, a book addressed in the NPR article, Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins has a Book Level measurement of 5.3, which means that Renaissance Learning’s ATOS system judges it to be at a 5th grade reading level. The Lexile level for Hunger Games is 810L, which, according to my state’s reporting of end of year reading performance, puts it solidly within 4th grade reading level. While I am sure there are individual fourth and fifth graders who are capable of fully understanding and internalizing the main issues and themes found in Hunger Games, most of the students I’ve worked with don’t begin to be able to do this until 7th grade. Incidentally, this is the grade level where our class sets of Hunger Games reside.

The language arts teachers in my building constantly strive to find and include novels, plays, poems, short stories, biographies, etc. that will be ENGAGING to their students. If the students aren’t engaged, they won’t be learning anything. Does this mean that everything used in class needs to be at a reduced reading level, or that nothing at a high reading level can be engaging? No. It means that it is the responsibility of the teacher and the librarian to seek out and use a variety of resources so that the students are exposed to materials that are either intrinsically engaging at their developmental level, or are made engaging by the way they are taught.

I’ll end with an example from this past school year. One day, one of my most creative language arts teachers called me with a request for materials that filled my geeky librarian heart with glee. She wanted articles and reference selections on the following topics: the history of science fiction literature, nuclear weapons, Ba’al, Sara Teasdale (poet), the Manhattan Project, and Ray Bradbury (among several others.) You see, she was going to be teaching her class using Bradbury’s short story “There Will Come Soft Rains.” She both wanted to make sure her students would be familiar with the background information needed to really understand the story and to make sure that they were exposed to rigorous and complex texts (since the story is part of Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, which has a lexile level of 740 and is well below what she was advised to use with her students.) The students formed groups which worked together to explore the articles on a particular topic and become ‘class experts,’ giving a presentation on their topic to the rest of the class.

Judging students’ learning, and their ability to read, interpret, and analyze complex text based on just the level of difficulty of the words and sentences in a reading is not just an incomplete picture. It dismisses the time and effort of both the teacher and the students.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments. Next time I will discuss text complexity and students’ free reading choices.