We live in an age of unparalleled information access. Sitting here with my laptop computer, I can read newspapers and magazines from around the world, browse an untold number of governmental and private databases, and read from the collections of libraries around the globe. I can decide what automobile or microwave oven to buy based on on-line product reviews—and make the purchase without leaving my chair. I can look for information to improve my health, earn a degree, or find a job. It is almost absurd how quickly technology has changed every facet of our lives. I find it vaguely comical when I watch an old—or even a relatively recent—movie and ponder how the plot twists hang on the exploits of a plucky heroine racing to and fro for information I can now find in an instant with a Google search. These days even the daring protagonist of The DaVinci Code, Robert Langdon, has to quickly find a library to save the damsel in distress from evildoers. Times have clearly changed.
So what are public schools to do when a student lags in reading skills, a tendency that tends to start early and remain a persistent problem throughout the school years? Moreover, what does that lowered interest in and ability at reading mean for a student’s future—and that of our nation? Judging by the most visible and well-documented trends—fewer people either reading a daily newspaper or immersing themselves in a book for pleasure—you have to worry about both the vibrancy of our democracy and the general literacy of our adult work force. Schools are under obvious pressure to produce readers and thinkers, and they are looking to respond to the challenge in a variety of ways.
One method that seems to work well and is gaining in popularity in classrooms across the country is to promote more self-directed reading among students. I used this method in my own classrooms, devoting a class day every other week exclusively to outside reading chosen by my students, and I found it be a winner. Although I continually tweaked the exact nature of the grading associated with it, I can guarantee that giving students a choice of reading materials produced very positive results. I still assert that certain core literature should be read together as class, but I was gratified to see students recommending books to one another as they progressed with developing their independent reading focus throughout the school year, which meant that my main goal of allowing my students to become critical and reflective consumers of the written word was attained through this teaching technique.
I also found that creative writing assignments were a good way to key students into books. By writing their own stories, actively engaging with plot and character in a manner not prescribed by the teacher, my students developed a greater interest in what the works of more experienced authors had to offer. If a student found, for example, they enjoyed writing romances, perhaps a peek into a Nora Roberts novel would prove of interest. By the same token, the student who enjoyed writing a thriller might be more easily induced to give Tom Clancy or Stephen King a try—just for the fun of it. If we know as educators that learning by doing works better than a more passive approach, why not use that same philosophy with reading? Learning to read without writing creatively is much like playing the piano with one hand—it can be done but why do it?
On a final note, I believe that a more active classroom approach to vocabulary development helps many students read with more fluidity and interest. After all, who can possibly enjoy reading when so many key words are unfamiliar? If I were to be asked to read a highly technical article without knowing the terms used by the author, I know I would be quickly frustrated and bored. Why should we expect students to react any differently when faced with a passage using vocabulary that is unknown? As simple as it may sound compared to more esoteric methods, weekly vocabulary quizzes pay dividends when it comes to improving student reading, and improvements in vocabulary translate quite readily into better reading and comprehension.
We can—and must—help all our students to graduate from high school with good reading skills. It will not require additional money or specially trained staff so much as a sustained commitment to promoting basic classroom practices that turn our children into active readers. If we fail to do so, we will condemn too many of our young citizens to a future that is circumscribed by their lack of facility with so basic and important a skill—and cheat them out of the sheer joy that comes from being a life-long reader.