How should reading be taught in schools?


Misty Adoniou, University of Canberra

When my son was nine years old, he put aside the large Harry Potter novel he had been slowly, but enthusiastically, reading each evening and instead began ploughing through lots of fairly uninspiring books that he brought home from school each day.

It turned out the Year 4 teachers had devised a competition at his school – whichever class read the most books would be rewarded with an end of term pizza party.

The aim, I presume, was to motivate the children to read. It is ironic then that the effect was that my son stopped reading for pleasure and instead began reading for the numbers.

Reading is now increasingly being reduced to a numbers game in schools.

What level is your child at?

At pick up time, parents quiz each other about what reading level their child is on. Inside the school staff room, teachers are directed to have children on level 15, 20 or 30 by the end of the school year.

Six year olds are deciding whether they are good readers or not based on how many books they have ticked off on their take home reader sheet.

These levels are based on algorithms that calculate the ratio of syllables to sentences, or measure word frequency and sentence length.

The rationale is that these formulae can be applied to rank books on a scale of readability and thus guide teachers to match books with children’s reading ability.

There are two key problems with this numbers approach to reading. First, the algorithms are faulty. Second, publishers misuse them.

What makes a book hard or easy to read?

The missing variables in readability algorithms are the authors’ intentions, the readers’ motivations and the teachers’ instruction.

These are key omissions, and they seriously reduce the usability of the algorithms and the credibility of the reading levels they produce.

Fictional stories often use familiar and high frequency vocabulary, and many authors use relatively simple sentence structures.

However the use of literary tools like allegory and metaphor, along with challenging text themes, increases the difficulty of works of fiction in ways that are not captured in readability algorithms.

For example, readability formulae give Hemmingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” a reading level suitable for primary school students. They may be able to decode the words on the page but comprehension of the book is less likely.

The same formulae may rank a non-fiction book on dinosaurs, for example, as only suitable for high school students because of its uncommon vocabulary, lengthy sentences and multi-syllabic words.

Yet a child’s interest and familiarity with the topic, or a teacher or parent’s support and instruction, can make that non-fiction book very readable for younger children.

Reading schemes

As readability formulae are not always a good fit for books, the solution has been, instead, to write books which fit the formulae. And publishers have been very keen to supply those books.

These are the books that our children take home each evening. They are written according to the numbers – numbers of high frequency words, numbers of syllables, numbers of words in a sentence.

What is missing in those books is author intention and craft, reader engagement and interest, and teacher support and instruction.

Essentially, then, what is missing in these books is the very essence of reading.

What books should children read?

We have been using the reading scheme system for decades and we still have children struggling to read.

When we use these quasi books to teach reading, we are not adequately preparing them for real reading.

These books, written to fit algorithms, don’t build broad vocabularies in our children. They don’t teach our children how to read complex sentence structures or deal with literary language or read between the lines. In many cases, they turn children off reading altogether.

Children learn to read by reading a book that is a little beyond what they can already read. The gap between what they can read and what they could read is reduced when the child:

  • is highly motivated by the content of the book;
  • has existing background knowledge about that content;
  • is receiving good instruction from a teacher.

We don’t need books arranged in coloured boxes labelled with level numbers to teach a child to read.

Beautifully written pieces of children’s literature will do the job.

Books full of carefully crafted writing by authors whose intentions are to engage, entertain and inform.

Books that teachers can work with in the classroom showing how sounds work in words, and how words work in sentences to make us feel, see or think new things.

Beautiful books that parents can also buy and delight in reading with their children.

Why it matters

The way we teach children to read will fundamentally influence what they understand the purpose of reading to be.

When we teach children to read through schemes that tally their books, we teach them that reading is simply about quantity. If reading is about getting a reward of a pizza, then children are less likely to read for intrinsic rewards.

The claims made for well-written children’s literature are many and varied.

Reading books to your children brings you closer to them, can teach them philosophy and about world issues.

But they can do something else. They can teach our children to read.

The Conversation

Misty Adoniou, Associate Professor in Language, Literacy and TESL, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Reading teaching in schools can kill a love for books


Ryan Spencer, University of Canberra

Reading instruction in the classroom is a key concern for all teachers and there are many ways to go about it. However, is our determination to achieve excellence in reading skills in our children killing their love and enjoyment of a good book?

In my work with parents, I am frequently asked the best ways to encourage and motivate reluctant readers to be engaged with books. Parents report that their children return home from school with no inclination to pick up a book and read.

Any avid reader will gladly talk about the joy of curling up with a good book to read away the hours on a cold, rainy afternoon. Reading a good book is one of life’s greatest pleasures. We need to share these experiences with our children and adolescents in order to assist them in developing into strong and capable readers.

How widespread is this concern about the destruction of reading enjoyment?

As I have written previously, the use of boring, mass-produced home reading texts in children’s early years at school can be seen as the beginning of this negative cycle.

As children progress through their schooling life, there are many other instances of learning reading skills that don’t help to celebrate or foster reading development. As NAPLAN tells us, getting the reading skills required simply to access these assessments isn’t always an enjoyable experience for students. Frequently, teachers feel the pressure to give their students “just enough” in terms of reading strategies to be able to access the test, which leaves little time to focus on reading for pleasure.

Kelly Gallagher, a high school teacher from the United States, outlines the term “Readicide” in his book by the same name. He says it’s:

the systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools.

It is clear that the destruction of reading for pleasure is not contained to US schools. When introducing my first-year pre-service teachers to the amazing collection of literature by Australian author Shaun Tan, audible gasps of displeasure are frequently found.

Kids should know this about books.
demotivation.us, CC BY

The Lost Thing is a multilayered visual text recommended by the NSW Board of Studies for students in years seven through to ten. Students recount their experiences of weeks spent analysing the key themes, ideas, imagery and concepts within the pages of this text.

The Lost Thing is an excellent example that illustrates all of these concepts; however, students comment that the length of time studying and analysing different components discourages them from looking at it or anything similar again.

Recent research also indicates that many pre-service teachers are inclined to follow the traditional literacy practices that they have experienced in their own education, which can often have negative connotations for their future students.

While teaching children and adolescents key concepts for analysing and evaluating texts is important, the manner in which it is done and time that is spent on this can lead to disengagement.

As Donalyn Miller notes in her book Reading in the Wild, schools aren’t to blame when it comes to not arresting students’ lack of interest in reading, but they have an important role to play in fostering reading enjoyment.

How do we encourage our children to read for pleasure?

Children (and adolescents, and adults) need to know that it is okay to read whatever they want, when they have the opportunity to do so. Giving children the chance to read whatever they like when shopping at the bookshop is a great place to start. If you are picking up a book to take home to your child as a gift, purchase a few, so they can choose something that interests them.

When parents are avid readers and actively talk about books with their children, they are establishing a climate at home where books are valued. Discussing your favourite books and parts of books with your children can lead to the discovery of new reading material about shared interests.

When your children bring home required reading, whether it be home readers or a set text for class, make sure that this isn’t the only reading they do. Provide incentives for your child to want to return to books of their own choice, in order to foster their interest in reading.

By helping our children and adolescents recognise the need for reading practice at school and the joys of reading for pleasure at school and home, we are giving them the best possible opportunity to develop the skills that they will need to be literate, passionate readers.

The Conversation

Ryan Spencer, Clinical Teaching Specialist; Lecturer in Literacy Education, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Book Review: Killing Calvinism – How to Destroy a Perfectly Good Theology from the Inside, by Greg Dutcher


Killing CalvinismI have started reading ‘Killing Calvinism – How to Destroy a Perfectly Good Theology from the Inside,’ by Greg Dutcher. This book was released by Cruciform Press in June 2012, so I have been reading a new book for a change. Generally I read books that were written many years ago, often several centuries ago, so this was a bit unusual for me. It was however the title of the book, along with a review that I had read somewhere, that drew my attention to it and so I decided to buy it at Amazon in Kindle format.

So reading the book I quickly discovered that it was a very easy book to read, even though it dealt with a subject that was indeed crucial, timely and weighty. Calvinism is the behemoth of Christian theology, being a system of truth that epitomises the teaching of Scripture. It has produced great works of theology, some very technical and verbose in nature. Yet here was a book looking at this system of truth that was easy to read and speaking straight to the heart with great warmth and even humour (yes humour).

However, it would be a mistake to think that this book dealt with Calvinism in a detached manner, somehow separated from the adherent to it. Indeed, this book seeks to penetrate the hearts of the adherents of Calvinism and to strike at the heart of the matter. This is not a book that somehow produces a barren formalism, rather it smashes through formalism and seeks the real Calvinism, one that comes from the inner person regenerated by the spirit of God and transforms the lives of those that profess it. It is a living Calvinism that this book seeks and challenges everything else that claims to be Calvinism, but yet has nothing of its soul. This book is a clarion call for a Calvinism that ignited the hearts of a Calvin, of a Spurgeon and of a Bunyan and desires a turning away from all that is not. I love Calvinism – it leads me to God and the way of life he wishes me to lead and live. This book reminds me of this and for that I am thankful to Him for allowing me to read it. It is as Dutcher describes it, the windscreen of truth that allows me to see God and how he wants me to live for Him.

Buy this book at Amazon:
http://www.amazon.com/Killing-Calvinism-Perfectly-Theology-ebook/dp/B0088PBC5G

Free Book: A God Entranced Vision of All Things – The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards


The link below is to a Blog where you can get a free ebook copy of this book, which is edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor. This book examines the character and teaching of Jonathan Edwards, a pastor from the era of the Great Awakening in the USA.

How do you get a copy? Simply leave a request in the comments section of the post linked to below.

If you would like other books visit the Blog, subscribe to it to keep up to date on what books are available and tell your friends about the site.

To Obtain a Copy of the Book, Visit:
http://searchandtrace.wordpress.com/2012/03/29/a-god-entranced-vision-of-all-things-the-legacy-of-jonathan-edwards/

Visit the Blog at:
http://searchandtrace.wordpress.com/

 

‘The Reformers and Their Stepchildren,’ by Leonard Verduin


I have been reading ‘The Reformers and Their Stepchildren,’ by Leonard Verduin, in the last week or so. It is not the first time that I have read this book, having read it some time ago – probably 10 years ago now I would say.

This is a book that I would recommend to any believer, but particularly to a Reformed believer, whether he be Paedobaptist or Baptist. Verduin seeks to analyse the Reformation and the relationship between the Reformers and their ‘stepchildren’ from a Biblical standpoint, rather than any particular denominational standpoint. Though he does defend the stepchildren, he does so only when they are in line with Scriptural teaching on the point being discussed within that particular chapter.

Who are the stepchildren? The stepchildren or the ‘second front,’ as Verduin also describes them, are those believers who sought a complete reforming of the church. In fact, it may be fair to say that these believers sought a complete break from the Romish church, and a new church built on the teachings of Scripture and modelled on the New Testament church alone.

The frustration for these nonconformist believers was that the reform movement only went so far and did not result in the complete renewal that they desired and that the situation required.

Thus far I have read only the first two chapters of the book and once again I am finding it a very worthwhile read. I find myself in substantial agreement with the position of many of the stepchildren and with Verduin. With as much respect as I have for the Reformers, such as John Calvin, Martin Luther and John Knox, I too would have found myself frustrated at the level of reform achieved by them (though they were better men than I). A complete break and renewal would have been the way forward I believe.

The first two chapters deal with the joint secular-religious church-state that was set up at both the time of Constantine and then at the Reformation in the various Protestant nations that embraced the Reformation. They deal with the all-embracing religion that was constructed in such centres as Geneva and the ‘unified’ approach to it, as well as the reaction of the stepchildren and their withdrawal from it.

This book is as close to a must read for believers as there is I think – especially of the Reformed persuasion.

My copy of the book (paperback) is by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. and was printed in 1964.