Friday, September 16, 2011

Summertime, and the reading is easy...

When I was a child I had a reputation as a bookworm. I wore the label proudly, since at the time I was unaware of its negative connotations. I remember reading book after book around the pool during March break in Florida, stopping only to dip into the water when I got too hot. During the summer, I read constantly simply because I had the time: my parents, whose parenting philosophy could be summed up by the phrase "benign neglect," did not feel the need to structure my summers.

My own parenting philosophy cannot be summed up as "benign neglect." Like most parents of my generation, I constantly fight the urge to rein in my daughters' freedom and micromanage their lives. But there is one way in which I parent like my mother and father: I do not structure my kids' time during the summer. I eschew the role of "camp counselor" both at the cottage and in the city; I do not see it as my job, and I've found that when left to their own devices, my daughters come up with imaginative and engaging activities to fill their time.

One such activity is reading for pleasure. I don't know how many books J and E read this past summer, but I do know that I was constantly having to replenish their supply. I frequently caught sight of the two of them lounging on the sofa, deeply immersed in their books, and though I sometimes felt the urge to tell them to go outside and get some fresh air, I resisted. They would often make their way outside at some point anyway, but even if they hadn't, I'm not sure I could have justified interrupting their reading. Here's why: I knew that when school started in September, their reading for pleasure would come to a grinding, depressing halt.

When school is in session, my daughters, like many school-aged kids, have very little time to read. Regular homework, extra-curricular activities, and socializing take up most of their free time. When they do find themselves with a spare moment, J and E—who, like most kids, experience the school-year schedule as a grind—are more likely to put on a DVD and collapse onto the sofa than to pick up a book.

A more complicated and insidious impediment to reading for pleasure during the school year has to do with how reading is handled as an academic subject. In Ontario, the reading curriculum, as set forth in documents available on the Ministry of Education website, focuses on
developing the knowledge and skills that will enable students to become effective readers. An effective reader is one who not only grasps the ideas communicated in a text but is able to apply them in new contexts.
Now, "effective readers" and people who read for pleasure are not mutually exclusive categories. And, to be fair, the curriculum document does acknowledge the importance of nurturing a love of reading:

A well-balanced reading program will provide students with opportunities to read for the pleasure of discovering interesting information as well as for the pleasure of self-discovery . . . and for the sheer fun of it.

But in reality, the Ontario language curriculum and the pedagogies that support it are not particularly conducive to fun or pleasure. Both seem heavily informed by research into the mechanics of reading, drawn from cognitive science and psycholinguistics, as well as by myriad constructivist and reader response theories borrowed from disciplines such as sociocultural psychology and literary studies. The result is an emphasis on the process of reading, and the "metacognitive" strategies that children and adults use when learning to read or when actually reading.

One such strategy involves the making of connections. In their influential book, Mosaic of Thought, reading researchers Susan Zimmerman and Ellin Keene, (synthesizing insights from transactional/reader response theory and cognitive science) outline three principal types of connections that competent readers make: "text to self," "text to world," and "text to text." Other theorists—such as Richard Anderson and P. David Pearson, in their seminal essay on Schema Theory—have emphasized the importance of prior knowledge to the reading process. According to Schema Theory, competent readers activate their prior knowledge (organized into schemata) to draw inferences, make predictions or employ "fix-up" strategies when they read. These activities and strategies allow readers to assimilate unfamiliar material by comparing and integrating it with what they already know, thereby enabling comprehension and learning.

It is important to note that these theories of reading—and the many others which inform reading curricula across North America*—are essentially descriptive in nature: that is, they attempt to describe what actually happens in the minds (or more recently, in the brains) of readers while they read. But during the circuitous journey from university to teacher's college to classroom, descriptive theories invariably devolve into prescriptive practices. So, for example, educators deduce (not entirely logically) that if effective readers make "text to text" or "text to self" connections or use inference and prediction to aid in comprehension, then children should be taught to read in this manner. The resultant pedagogy can take some unexpected and occasionally counter-productive forms.

A case in point: When my daughters were in Grade 2, their teacher decided that one of them, E, had a problem with comprehension. Asked what a certain chapter book reminded her of, my daughter had replied, "nothing." It's quite possible that the book did in fact remind E of nothing in her own life: at seven, her life experiences were somewhat limited. But I suspect the main reason she said "nothing" is that she was shy and inhibited around adults. The trick with kids such as these is not to ask a question that can be answered with a single word. If the teacher had asked E what the story was about, or whether or not she liked it, E would have told her, as she told me a couple of weeks later, following the parent-teacher interview in which I learned about the incident. On another occasion, the teacher asked a group of kids to predict what a certain book was about based on the cover. E's answer was, "I don't know." When I asked her why she answered that way, she said, "You once told me not to judge a book by its cover." (I stand by that advice!)

So in E's case, this emphasis on the supposed process by which efficient readers comprehend what they're reading backfired. The teacher's single-minded focus on what she referred to as "metacognition" actually prevented her from ascertaining who could read and comprehend simple chapter books and who could not. (According to my daughters, the outgoing kids would babble on about how the book reminded them of this and that, and would be rewarded for doing so, no matter how outlandish their answers.) Interestingly, E's teachers in the previous and following years chose not to use this method to assess reading ability; both recognized that E was a strong reader by evaluating her oral and written book reviews, and by asking her less scripted questions about the books she was reading.

Fortunately, these awkward moments with the Grade 2 teacher did not significantly affect E's attitude towards books or reading. But what worries me in retrospect is that they could have. They could easily have shaken E's confidence in her reading ability, thereby turning her off reading altogether. As it is, she learned that reading and discussing books in school (as opposed to at home) was not a pleasurable experience.

Unfortunately, that impression persisted and was compounded by other aspects of the reading curriculum. In the later elementary years, for instance, literature circles became one of the main vehicles by which the reading portion of the language curriculum was fulfilled. Harvey Daniels, in his book on the topic, describes literature circles as "a form of independent reading, structured as collaborative small groups, and guided by reader response principles in light of current comprehension research." In other words, a bit like a book club for kids, which sounds appealing. Indeed, it's difficult to object to the idea of students getting together in groups to discuss books; however, it seems that in the case of literature circles, somewhere between concept and execution, a vital ingredient got lost: fun.

In reality, literature circles are not kid versions of book clubs. Unlike adult book clubs, they are not self-organized. Most often, it is the teacher who chooses the books and the teacher who decides what types of activities the group will engage in. Typical (rotating) roles in literature circles include: "Discussion Director," "Passage Finder," "Illustrator," "Connector," "Vocabulary Enricher," "Investigator," and "Summarizer." There is nothing particularly objectionable about any one of these roles taken individually, but I wonder how many adults would join a book club in which these sorts of activities were required. (I certainly wouldn't: I can't draw, for one thing!) It should come as no surprise, then, that kids are not enamoured of them either. Both of my daughters love to read, but neither of them enjoys literature circles. Too little choice, they say, and too much busy work, often sent home as homework.

But critiquing current practice is easy, especially for a parent like me; I don't need to worry about fulfilling curriculum requirements or engaging children in a classroom setting. The question that needs to be asked—that I need to ask myself—is, what would a reading program that strove to inculcate a love of reading look like? The conclusions I've come to as a result of thinking about this question are not easy to articulate. But my sense is that the current curriculum, while well-intentioned, focuses too much on notions of "efficiency," "mastery," and "competence," and too little on concepts such as "enjoyment" or "pleasure."

Instead of asking what efficient readers do when they read, it might be worthwhile to consider what people who read for pleasure do. Do they stop when reading a novel to ask themselves what might be coming next, or what the book reminds them of in their own life? Do they put sticky notes (literal or figurative) on important passages? Do they make inferences and fill in gaps when the text is ambiguous? The answer is to all these questions is: quite possibly. But often people who read for pleasure do not do these things, or at least not consciously. Sometimes people are looking for escape when they read. Sometimes there are no relevant "text to self" or "text to world" connections to be made. Or sometimes, the cognitive processes that occur when a person reads are so routine as to be imperceptible. As Anderson and Pearson concede, "Many aspects of reading may be automatic, at least in a skilled reader, and hence require very little cognitive capacity."

Reading requiring very little cognitive capacity: it's an apt description of light "summer reading" for many people. Such reading is valuable in its own right for the pleasure it brings the reader. And despite its being largely automatic and imperceptible, learning—in the form of specific, measurable literacy skills—is occurring during this type of reading; in fact recent research suggests that intrinsically-motivated leisure reading may lead to greater gains in reading comprehension and competence than extrinsically-motivated (e.g., classroom) reading. But the less tangible rewards of reading for pleasure are equally—if not more—important. When a child or adult reads for pleasure, he or she is voluntarily exploring unfamiliar worlds, catching glimpses of the vast plethora of human character and behaviour, and thus building and expanding his or her capacity for empathy.

What better reason to encourage or at least allow for pleasure reading during the school year? Doing so would not require a wholesale overhaul of the curriculum. Teachers could keep the literature circles, for instance, but make them truly student-directed. They could let students choose the books and determine the way in which the circle is organized. Let the children read and discuss in any way they see fit. But, most important, just let them read. Give students unfettered access to the school library, and set aside blocks of time daily for independent, no-strings-attached reading. In other words, import a bit of lazy summer reading into the school year. Perhaps in this way, educators—with the help of supportive parents—can begin to bridge the troubling chasm between reading for pleasure and reading for school .

*For an overview of of these theories, see Lenses on Reading: An Introduction to Theories and Models, by Diane H. Tracey and Lesley Mandel Morrow.