How to Hook a Reader, and How Not to: The Fault in Our ARs

This is the second of two blogs on external reading incentive programs and why I think they can’t help but fail, sometimes causing damage as they do. AR is the acronym for Accelerated Reader, the program at use in my kids’ public schools in Los Angeles county, and the beast I fought on the way to raising readers.

There are lots of problems with reading incentive programs, and I addressed my big, philosophical problems three weeks ago: I think the system can be gamed, and if it isn’t, it can do more damage by training kids to read superficially. In this installation I raise some AR-specific (and possibly district-specific) gripes that my kids had to work around.

One problem with AR is that it depends on levels of reading, and when a child’s reading level is established, at least in our schools, kids were unable to read outside of their range. I have trouble with pigeon-holing kids in to levels in the first place, but if it means they are actively discouraged from reading widely, I think it’s doubly awful. 

What gets and keeps kids reading is letting them choose what they want to read, and if you tell them they can’t read something above or below their reading level, two bad things happen. First they lose the benefits of “comfort-reading,” where they read easy stuff that they just enjoy, and second, they are discouraged from really challenging themselves. Sometimes kids are interested in books beyond their ability, and telling them they can’t read them might mean losing a critical moment when they could have fed a passion. Kids learn by reading demanding texts, and if they choose something way beyond their ability, the higher road is to help them through it, rather than tell them it’s too hard for them.

The other loss from limiting kids’ reading choices is that they can’t always read what their friends are reading. This is a huge loss. Kids come in every day talking about what they saw on television or at the movies, and they love to talk to their friends about it. But if they happen to test in to a level way above or way below their friends, they will never be able to talk about the books they have read. We know as adults we love talking about books we’ve read—book clubs are popping up everywhere—but we deny kids that pleasure when we limit the books they can choose to read.

So much is at stake when our kids learn to read. If they love it, they do better in all their coursework. If they love it, they have a lifetime of cheap entertainment and an opportunity to grow continually as they read throughout their lives. If they dread it, they can struggle academically and psychologically. 

Why, then, don’t we do what we know works? Let them choose what they want to read? The short answer is time. Teachers with wide gaps between kids’ skills don’t have time to meet every child where they are and move them gently forward—would that they did. For instance, when my daughter was in 3rd grade, kids in her class were testing at kindergarten to 12th grade reading levels, while all the text books were at third grade level. That means some kids are bored, and some are lost and struggling every single day. (Another answer to that question is that reading programs and other testing companies are BIG business, but I am not that cynical today.)

In the absence of a private tutor, then, a kid needs someone—a parent, a librarian, a friend, just some grown-up who can discuss the books the child reads. Someone needs to listen to what they like, make suggestions for appropriate books, and discuss them afterward. They need to check if the book was too difficult, too scary, too mature, or just right, and follow up with another book.That’s how you hook a reader—show them something amazing, and then tell them there is more… lots more. (If that person could read some aloud, that would be even better, but that is a different blog.)

Ultimately, of course, every kid is different. That’s why they need different books along the way to becoming book worms. We just all need to pitch in; we can’t dump this responsibility solely on teachers. We can all help, putting the right books in to kids’ hands at the right time. That’s a sure-fire way to change the world.

Reading Rock Stars

When I was in grad school I took a Dickens seminar, and it was awesome.  Not only did I have incentive to read a bunch of long novels (which I instinctively shy away from), I enjoyed learning about the author in a way one doesn’t get to outside a Major Authors course. There were biographical tidbits throughout the semester, and I left with the feeling that Dickens was someone I would have liked, despite his foibles. The thing I loved the most about him was that he was characterized as a rock star, drawing huge crowds, and doing public readings in the way one thinks of concerts today. He had fans clambering for the next installment of his novels the ways we impatiently wait for our favorite bands’ new releases or anticipated sequels to movies.
It also made me nostalgic for a time I never knew—when an author could have that status.  I’ve been to book readings and signings, and they’re always modest but wonderful moments, perhaps the more wonderful for their intimacy. But I’m never under the illusion that books are as powerful a draw as musicians or movie stars. I’m still not. But I was pretty close last Thursday night.
I took my family to see “An Evening with Neil Gaiman” at the Segerstrom Concert Hall, which seats close to 2000.  It was pretty full. I had no idea what to expect.  Would he read?  Would he chat?  Did he have a performance shtick? Incidentally, it’s hard to sell an outing to teenagers without really knowing what to expect. They’re well-behaved, but they were… reluctant. They both would have stayed home if that had been an option.  But they both had a great time.
It turns out “An Evening” means some reading, some impromptu chatter, and some responding to question cards that audience members filled out before the show.  In all, Gaiman read seven pieces, from a chapter out of his retelling of Norse Myths to a poem he wrote after visiting a Poetry Brothel for his stag party. There was even an encore piece. We clapped; we stood; we sat back down, and he read one more short story. It was utterly delightful.
I left heartened about a world that seems to be super digital, but wherein crowds still form to hear stories. They cheered for him when he mentioned his books and their success, and they cheered when he told a story about his toddler son. They listened, rapt, when he discussed the serious shift in culture from when his novel American Gods was written, and why and how it’s become contentious in an atmosphere of recent travel bans and immigration issues.It was a wonderfully human evening.

Gaiman has a diverse audience, from tweed jackets to tattoos and cargo shorts, and we fit in just fine: another family raising readers, happy to listen in real time to a great story.  


Reading to Kids

The best thing I have ever done for my kids, and probably for myself as well, is read to them. When I was pregnant, I had my husband read to me. (People told me that was a good way to have the baby recognize daddy’s voice when he or she made her appearance.)  When they were too tiny to scoot away, I held them and read to them, pointing at pictures and making big faces along with the book. By the time they were able to scoot away, they didn’t want to.  Storytime was such a warm, happy place that we could sit for an hour by the time they were one, when everyone was telling me babies had no attention span. A few years of books bringing close, loving, quiet time, and my kids associated books with happiness. Neither one of them has lost that, even during those perilous ‘tween years, when pressure increases to do more and be more cool.They are 14 and 16 now, and they both read more than I do. And while we don’t have faithful, nightly storytime (starting about a year ago), I still read some–just bigger books: The Odyssey and The IliadA Tale of Two Cities.
There have always been books all over my house. My parents used to talk about “decorating with books.” They had whole walls of bookshelves in most rooms of their house, so I grew up knowing books as a part of daily life long before college–where I first dubbed myself a reader. My house looks like that too, now, but with a lot more kids’ books, and a lot less order. There are books in every room, and some of them are not neatly stored on shelves, but stacked on tables or desks, resting on the couch where they were last read, or piled on the floor, practically becoming furniture themselves because we can’t bear to put them away and have them not close at hand. That was the one request I could never refuse, if I had the money. I could say no to the Nerf gun or the latest Littlest Pet Shop critter, but if they wanted a book, that was something else.That was an investment.

And it has paid off more than I could have anticipated. At the end of third grade, my daughter was testing at 12th grade level, and her teacher thanked me for doing all that “enrichment” at home.  Reading to her?  Really? I certainly never did flashcards or drills or any overt reading instruction. All I did was read. We talked about the books, defined unfamiliar words as we went, and talked about anything scary or troubling as well as laughed together about the funny moments. And we built a repertoire of stories that became our shared frame of reference for the world. That kid is just like Ferdinand the Bull; he just wants some quiet time to himself. Today I feel like Angelina the mouse, when she submarined herself and missed her chance to be in the big ballet. Poohsticks is just like Calvinball is just like our made-up games.
Both kids called the shots on their relationship to storytime, in addition to helping choose the titles. The girly went through a phase where she wanted to “be” the people in the stories.  She would point and assign: “I’ll be Frances, Mommy. You be Gloria.” (Can you name that picture book series?)  And we would start from the plot of the book and make up new adventures for the sisters. My son left the couch at around 8 years old and never came back. He built stuff with Legos on the living room floor while we read; his sister eagerly followed along with the words, but he was happy to listen and keep his hands busy.
I don’t think there’s any right way to read to kids. I think any time we spend reading to kids is good. If we ham it up with voices and emotions, they get involved viscerally, but if we don’t do so much, they bring their own faculties to bear. If we let them read some too, they get to feel like they run the show too, but if we don’t, they get more time listening to an experienced reader, and their skills improve more quickly. Kids benefit from being exposed to a wide variety of genres and cultures, so it helps if the reader brings in new stuff the kids have never seen. But kids also thrive on repetition, the familiar, and the power to choose texts for themselves, so reading time is best when it’s a mix of both impulses. In fact, the only way I can think of screwing up storytime is simply by not having it.