post by The Educator Collaborator associate Vanée Smith-Matsalia
Reading for Love and Liberation
“Independent reading is a waste of time.”
I cannot tell you how many times I have heard that exact phrase, or some derivation of it, from English teachers and coaches alike. The arguments are always the same: class time should be focused on standard mastery; it’s more effective to teach test taking strategies than engage in reading time; students are bored and are “only pretending to read” anyway!
This is a thing.
These types of comments used to dishearten me. I was never able to understand how people who are primarily responsible for literacy instruction could have such disdain for children engaging with literature in class. I had to eventually realize that English teachers were and are under a great deal of pressure to teach to one test or another and demonstrate measurable growth towards mastery for no fewer than 42 Common Core standards, not including the PLETHORA of sub-standards. These standards are tied to multiple high-stakes tests per year. These test scores are tied to school budgets, school funding, and school culture. That is a lot to consider for anyone. English teachers are responsible for so much.
In short, anything not in the standards is not on the test. Anything not on the test, therefore, is not in the curriculum.
Joy is not in the standards.
Love is not on the test.
And reading is often not welcome in the classroom.
There is no shortage of research which suggests that independent reading is not only beneficial, but essential to advancement in literacy. In their Statement on Independent Reading, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) reminds us that, “The advancement of reading comprehension skills and development of vocabulary are directly tied to the work readers do during independent reading.” Our students need this time to develop as readers. It is central to their literacy development.
For teachers, this can be difficult. To allow students to have self-selected reading, we have to relinquish some control. We have to let go of the concept that we always know what is best or what is engaging for students. Doing this means students don’t have to read “grade-level” texts, or books that score at their current level. Teachers have to sacrifice some power for this to work, right? Wrong. No power is lost; it is merely transferred. Making time for self-selected independent reading simply transfers power to the reader. What could be more impactful than empowering students to read? Reading is not and should not be only about achievement–however, “achievement” is impossible without it.
Self-selected independent reading is most valuable when it is student selected–with choices in genre, length, medium, and mode. Students must be able to choose what they love. I am an English teacher. I earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in English Literature. If you give me a book on crown moldings, I will learn nothing and I will remember nothing. The language will go over my head and I will not look further into it. This is not because I am a bad reader. It is because I don’t care. Why should I? This has no interest to me. I know, I know… “iN ReAl LiFe YoU cAn’T AlWaYs Do WhAt YoU wAnT.” Yeah… we know. But oftentimes, you can. And when you have options, you tend to be more successful. Also, if we really want children to “achieve” in reading, then we should focus on right now instead of the “real life” we are imagining for them in the future. Maybe we should help students become fiercely, remarkably literate so they can create the kind of future they want, instead of the one we build in our minds with the deficits we create.
Let kids be happy.
That is a complete thought.
Students deserve to disappear into the world of their favorite manga. They deserve to feel a little piece of home by reading about people they identify with. Students should be able to take their love for characters on TV and in movies and read about them in print to discover the vast worlds of narrative outside the screen. They should be able to laugh at a book because it’s funny… and that is all. Our kids deserve laughter. Our kids deserve love. Our kids deserve to read for joy.
While reading for joy and love does not require anything else to support it, students should be allowed quiet moments for these things because they deserve joy and love in school by nature of existing in it. I do realize that this is not always enough for us as teachers. Teachers need data, right? Well, how’s this for data? According to research conducted by the American Library Association, “Students who read independently become better readers, score higher on achievement tests in all subject areas, and have greater content knowledge than those who do not (Krashen 1993; Cunningham and Stanovich 1991; Stanovich and Cunningham 1993). This research is decades old, and demonstrates that independent reading directly impacts student achievement, which begs the question of why this type of reading isn’t more prevalent–not just in English class, but school wide. More modern research was conducted on 8th graders in 2015. Teachers made a concerted effort to focus on engaged reading over assigned reading. “They abandoned assigned readings in favor of student-selected, self-paced reading within a collection of high interest materials—primarily young adult fiction that students found personally relevant. Over a 4 year period, among other things, this shift consistently resulted, for the students, in increased reading volume, a reduction in students failing the state test, and changes in peer relationships, self-regulation, and conceptions of self” (Ivy, Johnson). This method of reading works.
Self selected reading has a long-term effect on the lives of our students and the communities to which they belong. “The effects of reading extend into quality of life: high levels of leisure reading and reading proficiency are associated with greater academic, financial, professional, and civic benefits” (National Endowment for the Arts, 2007). Reading has the power to set children and communities free. Reading comprehension is directly tied to the welfare of our children and the communities we serve. There is no test-taking strategy or high-stakes assessment that can do this. In fact, they can be detrimental to our students, but that’s a subject for a different post. Literacy begets freedom. Engaging reading begets literacy. I’d say that it isn’t science, but it is.
When reading is only framed as a means to an end in the classroom, it steals the joy from the process. This does not mean that text-dependent questions and annotated texts are bad things, but they cannot be the only entrance into literacy that our students have. If every text we read is for the purpose of standards driven assessment and remediation, we are sending the message that reading is only for those things, and of no use outside of them. We have to escape this dangerous cycle.
Independent reading alone will not teach children to read and it cannot be the sole solution to literacy problems. However, it cannot be written off as a waste when years of research suggest that it works. Independent reading is good for students. Reading is good for humans. We cannot sacrifice reading for joy at the altar of achievement when our students’ very futures are tied to it.
Liberate our kids.
Let them read.