Why real reading works

A fantastic conversation is happening right now at Dan Brown’s blog, “Get in the Fracas,” about reading for pleasure as key factor in student success, especially on standardized tests.  He draws on research by Veda Jairrels about how voluntary reading is the crucial piece that is missing for many African-American students and accounts for the “achievement gap” between black and white students.  I highly recommend reading the post and comments.

I just posted this response:

Reading for pleasure is such a key factor AND indicator of learning and intellectual growth because when a child reads voluntarily he or she is focused on the reading experience and not the grade, desired test score, or approval of the teacher. Our schools and school system are built around the idea that kids will respond to extrinsic motivators to learn. Research shows that extrinsic motivators (incentives, grades, etc.) work when the task is very simple, not requiring critical thinking. But when the task is more complex and requires critical thinking, the extrinsic motivator has a negative effect on the learning. That is because it moves the child’s focus to the grade or desired outcome, instead of the content and experience itself. (See Daniel Pink’s new book, Drive, for this research. Also this Ted Talks video.)

Back to reading for pleasure: the Readers (as Brown describes–those who read for pleasure but often do not complete class assignments) are building genuine intellectual experience in their reading, whereas the Worker Bees (those who complete all assignments but understand very little) are just trying to earn the grade and/or please the teacher and other people in their lives.  They are far removed from the real process of learning.

I believe that intrinsic motivation to learn is the crucial factor in academic success. Reading for pleasure is not the only way kids can develop and work off of intrinsic motivation, but it is a really important and rewarding place to start. I agree with Jairrels that including the parents in the process is extremely valuable. [I want to say it is essential, but some students really do not have family situations that allow this, though they can definitely still become readers.  Parent involvement also becomes more complicated when parents do not speak English or are not literate themselves-nonetheless, I have not found this to be a barrier to students developing a love of reading.] Some of my most rewarding experiences as a teacher have been when I’ve connected with parents around my reading curriculum, so that parents understand their child’s reading interests and actually get involved in their reading lives directly, by reading together, or through conversation about the reading.

Last year I had a student I’ll call Jamar.  Jamar was a sweet, very sociable kid, who always expressed a desire to do well in school, but who, in reality, was pretty disengaged with his school work.  He had a lot of trouble focusing and following through on assignments.  His grades in most classes including mine regularly hovered between a D+ and an F.  His skills more or less matched those grades.  My homework all year long is reading.  We alternate between students choosing their own books and me assigning whole class novels.  Every night, students are to read at least 10 pages and write 3 post-it notes inside the book with their responses.  (I also allot class time for this.)  I make lots of phone calls home to let parents know what students are reading and especially to alert them when their child is not doing it.

Jamar was reading very little, especially at home. I had made a few phone calls to his mother about it. As it turned out, she was out of work on disability and so she had plenty of time to spend with Jamar in the evenings.  This time I was calling about a novel the whole class was reading, The Dream Bearer by Walter Dean Myers.  It was due in two days and Jamar needed to complete it in order to participate in seminar-style discussions.  His mother said, “That’s it. He’s gonna read this book.”  The next day, Jamar skipped into school early.  “Ms. Sacks, you’re not going to believe it. I am SO tired. I was up til 2am reading that book with my mother!  But you know what?  The book is really GOOD! And you’re gonna love reading my post-it notes!”

The following day the book was due, and Jamar came in boasting to everyone that he’d finished.  His participation in discussions that week was exemplary.  His insights into the book were deep and well-evidenced.  A new voice–both knowledgeable and inquisitive–emerged from him that day.  I called his mother to tell her how wonderfully he’d done with it and thanked her for her help. She said, “You know, I’m home with him every day. I always ask him what homework he has and he says he already did it.  This is the first time I got to really work with him on anything.”  She also told me how much she’d enjoyed reading the book with him and asked me what other books I had that might be similar that she could read with him.

The amazing thing was that Jamar was not the same student after that moment.  Something had clicked. He became much more engaged with his work, not just the reading, and not just in English class.  He had benefited from the real intellectual experience of reading and was able to speak from that experience in an academic context.  The power of that work and the deepening of his relationship with his mother was great enough to turn him on to learning.

[image credit: homelink.cps-k12.org]

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