Saturday, May 10, 2008

Teaching Reading v. Reading

Thousands of educators met this past week in Atlanta for the annual International Reading Conference where reading teachers, authors and publishers gathered to celebrate books and reading. This is one of the larger shows on the educational conference circuit as reading is such a foundational skill.

Some of the show buzz concerned the admission last week from the Department of Education that Reading First failed to make a difference in students' reading comprehension. The program has been under attack almost from its inception for cronyism and mismanagement. Although most educational publishers have been keeping close track of the program and have been aware of its deficits for some time, the announcement may have come as a surprise to educators whose districts and schools have benefitted from Reading First funding.

In a nutshell, evaluators agree that Reading First programs spend too much time on basic instruction and too little time on reading actual literature so that students have not substantively increased their comprehension. In fact, the decrease in reading actual books, both in the classroom and at home, is of great concern to those most passionate about the benefits of reading.

Reading First is inextricably linked to the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation which is currently before Congress for reauthorization. Good teachers are leaving the field because schools are decimating their curriculums to comply with NCLB testing requirements. I have never read such a poignant perspective as Jordan Sonnenblick's essay in the recent School Library Journal article where he states:

"What I loved most about teaching middle school English was the books, the stories, the poems. I loved putting great thoughts into the hands of my students, and watching what I really, truly saw as a holy communion between child and author, with me as the officiant. And it kills me to know that if I went back, I wouldn’t have much time to teach literature, which is increasingly seen as a frilly extra. So I’m leaving the classroom because my colleagues were right: going back without time for books would kill me. But it hurts very, very much to know that, in my absence, the classroom is killing my peers and my would-be students anyway."
NCLB has reshaped the landscape for educational publishers, and decreasing time and money is certainly affecting the amount of real literature students are exposed to in school. While there may be a cumulative negative effect, there are still teachers and classrooms where authentic literature continues to play a starring role as evidenced by the reading teachers at this week's meeting in Atlanta.

Teachers, librarians and publishers believe in the power of authentic literature to deeply affect a child's life and learning. As book enthusiasts, what can we do to support the educators who are struggling every day to find the balance between teaching reading and actually reading?

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