Monday, January 16, 2012

Reading for Pleasure: Losing Sight of the Forest for the Trees?

Over at the People for Education website, there is an interesting post about kids and pleasure reading. Both the post—sparked by this People for Education report, which documents a decline in reading for pleasure among school-aged children—and the ongoing discussion are well worth reading. Here's the comment I submitted:

Fascinating debate, and one in which I am deeply invested. My biggest concern at the moment is not how to instill a love of reading in my twin daughters—we managed to do that simply by reading to them frequently when they were younger, and by reading books ourselves, constantly—but how to prevent schools from quashing that love. I've blogged on the issue of reading for pleasure versus reading for school before (here), but lately another problem has arisen: the way the Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading program is being used in schools as a means of taking away choice—and hence, reading pleasure—from kids. For instance, in my daughters' middle school, the Red Maple program, which is supposed (I believe) to be voluntary, has been made mandatory. The girls' English teacher has told the kids that they must read all ten books on the list if they want to get an A in English. There is so much wrong with this that I don't know where to begin. Both of my daughters have read more than ten books this year, but the key for them is personal engagement—and choice. Some of the books in the Red Maple program don't interest them at all. Others are simply inappropriate for them. (One example is the "problem novel," Dear George Clooney Please Marry My Mom, by Susin Nielsen, a book which assumes that 12-year-olds know who George Clooney is—mine did not—and are familiar with concepts such as "trophy wife.") If choice in reading is going to be taken away from kids in school, I would prefer it to be in favour of classic kid lit (e.g., Little Women, Kidnapped, Treasure Island, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), and not flavour-of-the-month type novels, many of which have not stood the test of time. (Which is not to say that some of them aren't wonderful.) I don't have a problem with books being assigned to an entire class and discussed in class; my daughters' English class read Animal Farm this year, and it was a positive experience. But when teachers ask kids to read books on their own time, they should not tell them what to read—or even how. (I'm agnostic on the issue of electronic versus paper reading, though my husband and I and both daughters favour the tactile experience of paper books.) Pleasure reading requires two things: time and choice, both of which are being eroded by the misuse of well-intentioned programs like Forest of Reading.