Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Where Reading Takes You

First of all, let me send out a million commiserations to all those poor Australian kids who had to sit government-orchestrated tests today. Trust me, whatever the results try to tell you - you are doing OK. And the tests are crap. You want to know how your teachers feel about those tests? Read this. I cannot believe that this government is venturing down the road of No Child Left Behind. To me, it's like saying our teachers are useless and need a good testing kick up the rear end to make them better. NOT. Who knows more about the kids in their classroom than a teacher? Who knows more about where those kids come from? For crying out loud, we have kids entering our schools every year who don't know which way up to hold a book! You think a test is going to solve that?

OK, time out for a few moments while I try to calm down.

What does reading do? I've already gabbed on here about what reading does for someone who wants to be a writer. I'm seeing students right now who want to write children's books who read 5 or 10 and think that's it. No, it's not. You have to read 20 or 40 or 100, and then think about who those books are speaking to, what the voice is doing, what the language is doing (not dumbing things down), how things like pace and action and dialogue are all working together to create a "cracking good read" (shades of Basil Brush there).

But it's much more important for us to think about what reading does for our kids. I was talking to someone today (Hi, M!) who said her son (8) is writing a book. And he's doing a pretty good job of it too, even with the grammar and punctuation. Straight away, I asked her, "Is he a keen reader?". Yes, she said. And that just proved to me yet again that reading lots of books leads to an innate, basic understanding of not only how a story works, but how a sentence works. If you read plenty of books, of any kind, or poems, articles, even encyclopedias, you just come to understand how sentences work. You don't need to know subject-verb-object in parsing terms, you just know it by reading it over and over.

I read something today about the nose-dive in the amount of reading that 18-30 year olds in the US do (it was from a magazine called Narrative) and how the editors have decided to try to do something about it by focusing the magazine on that reading age group. But they also talked about much younger readers - how kids in the 11-13 age group are also reading less. There's been a lot of stuff about this recently, and every project designed to get people reading again is great. But it does ultimately come back to schools - primary schools. If someone isn't reading by Year 7, you're unlikely to get them back.

There is a big push here to refund schools so that they all have teacher-librarians (a dying breed). A librarian from the NT blogged about how he wasn't sure if it was worth going back to uni to train as a teacher-librarian. Hello? If you are already a teacher or a librarian, why do you have to go back and pay HECS and study some more? They teach or work in a library, they love books, they love reading, they want to get kids to love reading. Why do you need one more piece of paper (that cost you more than a few thousand dollars) to prove it?

I have commented before about how reading is reading, and any kind of reading is great. It is. But now I'm going to go one step further and suggest that what fiction reading can do is set your imagination on fire. It takes you to other worlds, it shows you things about the world in a way that facts seldom do, it tells the stories of other kids like you, it shows you about issues like refugees in a way that newspaper reports don't (or show falsely). Reading a book takes stamina, but a great story will carry you away to a world you didn't know existed. A poor reader who finally finds a book they love, a book that transports them, that gives them hope and courage - how is that reader going to find that book on their own?


Unknown said...

great post sheryl. I'm a parent with three children. And I understand where you are coming from. best regards

Sherryl said...

Thanks, Carmel. Sometimes I feel like a dinosaur, going on about books and reading while other people are focusing on computers and "digital literacy". Even though I agree that they are important for kids, given the way we are going with computers, I still believe even that begins with learning to read well, and enjoy reading.
What I didn't say about those 11-13 year olds in the US is that the studies have also proven that the main reason those kids are not reading is because of the testing, and the fact that schools are spending all their time now on rote learning.
Yet the Chinese are moving in the opposite direction! They are going from rote learning into learning to read through experiential learning, of which 50% is arts-related subjects!

Unknown said...

Wow, that's interesting. Food for thought.

Anonymous said...

Speaking from the US, I'm not sure why any of our twenty-somethings would even consider the profession of teaching today. Thanks to "No Child Left Behind," schools are holding pens and teachers are nothing more than test wranglers AND there is so much they could offer if they were simply treated as professionals and allowed to teach. Why they could help students discover reading for enjoyment.

Sherryl said...

Kate, I think Sonnenblick's article in SLJ (I gave the link) shows exactly what it is like for teachers who care - NCLB kills all the pleasure of teaching and learning for both students and teachers.
It's a very sad situation, and I can't believe that governments are so determined to go down this track!

Anonymous said...

Sherryl, I think it's a case of top down management combined with cost-cutting. It's devious and disrespectful. Can you tell how mad I am? Thank you so much for posting on this topic. Parents and teachers do have the power to vote and maybe…maybe change is on our horizon. For now it appear that the government hates an active mind, especially in children. So much easier to manipulate an unimaginative population.

Sherryl said...

Apathy among voters is a wonderful thing when you are relying on it to get re-elected. And killing off imagination and individuality in kids certainly ensures future generations who won't bother voting.
I sent the link to that article, along with an email protesting about testing, to both my local member of parliament and Julia Gillard (education minister) - did I get a response? Not likely!