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Sandy Banks

Reading Should Begin, Not End, at Home

April 17, 2001|Sandy Banks

The news landed like a body blow, delivering another black eye to our nation's public schools: Less than a third of the country's fourth-graders are proficient readers, and the gap between the best and worst readers is widening.

According to the "nation's report card," released this month by National Assessment of Educational Progress, fourth-grade reading skills have not improved in the past eight years, despite a wave of school reforms and a flood of money aimed at low achievers.

The report unleashed a round of hand-wringing from politicians, advocacy groups and educators.

Our schools, one activist charged, are engaged in "Educational Darwinism" that neglects poor children. Many blamed teachers and the colleges that train them, saying they rely on outmoded, discredited teaching techniques. Some used the study to call for more government spending; others saw in it a reflection of our previous unwise fiscal excess.

But beneath the name-calling and finger-pointing, there is plenty of blame to go around. And before we cast about for villains--and for solutions--we ought to look in the mirror at ourselves, and ask what we're preparing our children for.

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Fourth grade just may be the toughest year in a young child's life. That is when kids stop learning to read and start reading to learn; when the demands of academic rigor turn school into more work, less play.

That makes it all the more alarming to realize that one-third of our country's children pass through fourth grade lacking such basic knowledge of reading that they can understand only simple words and sentences and cannot draw conclusions from what they read.

But it serves us all to keep in mind that learning to read is among the most difficult jobs a child will ever undertake. Our brains are not wired to allow reading to come naturally or easily, neuroscience suggests. The simple act of reading a book remains one of the most challenging tasks the brain is ever asked to perform.

And teaching children to crack the code--to understand the sounds and words that letters make--is just the beginning. That is what we train and pay our teachers for. Helping children to become good readers--to understand what they read and why they read--is just as much a parent's job.

In fact, the report found that schools are working harder today than in the past to prepare children to become good readers. More students report that they read frequently in class, are required to do homework daily and write regularly in class about what they've read. Improved reading performance is associated with all of those things.

It is at home that we are falling short, where we have failed to make reading a priority, to promote it as something more than a chore, to offer our children the same chance to polish their reading skills as we give them to improve their computer skills or their jump shot.

Among the worst readers, the study found, were fourth-graders who said they rarely read for fun at home, those who watch more than six hours of television a day, those whose families had little reading material at home.

It is the "home factors related to literacy [that] do not reflect a positive trend," the reading assessment said. The percentage of households with books, magazines and newspapers is dropping. Only one-quarter of fourth-graders say they ever talk with their family or friends about something they've read. And the percentage of children who never or hardly ever read for fun is growing.

And we wonder why our children are having trouble mastering what may be the toughest and most important thing they'll ever learn.

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Just like a few summers of swimming lessons cannot turn a child into a fish, a few years of classroom reading instruction is not enough to make a child a lover of books. It is not just learning to execute the strokes that makes swimmers love the water. It is the feeling of being at home in a pool that allows them to enjoy a cold plunge on a hot day.

To produce competent, enthusiastic readers--children who feel at home with a book--we have to help our kids discover the ways that reading can enrich their lives.

This latest report offers no new advice, nothing we haven't heard before: Turn off the television. Let them see you read at home. Ask them about what they've read at school. Make reading a part of their leisure time.

But it does offer a bit of insight into what's at stake, and it goes beyond report cards and test scores and how our schools look in the eyes of the world.

"If students regard reading only as a school-related activity, as a duty rather than a pleasure, their future prospects for reading to understand themselves and the world are limited," the study said. "For reading on one's own not only extends comprehension skills, but also enhances the understanding of what happens in life."

And life is, after all, what we're preparing our children for.

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