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Let Them Read Whole Books

A former teacher and editor, Joy Hakim won the prestigious James Michener Prize for A History of US.  The books in the A History of US series have been recognized as a break-through tool in teaching history and critical reading skills to young people.  In the original post below Hakim responds to last week’s report that reading scores have stalled.

Yet another national test shows that our kids’ reading scores, already low, are “stagnant.” Why? According to Sam Dillon’s story in Thursday’s New York Times that’s a question that is “much debated.”

Not with me. I know why those scores refuse to move.

Our schools aren’t letting children read whole books. In this information age, when young people are very aware of the real world, we’re keeping any book-driven consideration of it out of classrooms, especially in those crucial middle school years. Studies show that the average American schoolchild never reads a single whole nonfiction books during middle and high school (except maybe a textbook).

What schools are doing—endlessly—is teaching reading “strategies.” Our young students are analyzing paragraphs. I call it “snippet” reading.

Let me explain: My experience may be instructive.

I’m the author of narrative nonfiction books for young readers. Don’t tell my friends in the history and science fields, but I chose to use their subjects with the idea of teaching analytical reading. I began, 15 years ago, with a ten–book series of small readable books that trace U.S. history from the trek over the Bering Strait to 9/11 and beyond. My next books focused on the physics story, from Aristotle to today’s cosmic explorers. I quickly found that children want to be savvy about serious subjects; they love being “smart.” I know, because I hire 10-year-olds to be my editors, I pay them for their editorial comments, and I listen to their suggestions. (I’m now writing about today’s microbiology and its astonishing implications for the world our children will inhabit.) I also have a stack of love letters from young readers.

To get on with this story: 15 years ago, when my history books were first published, schools that adopted them assigned five books a year (they are small books) in a two year sequence. At St. Ann’s in Brooklyn, fifth graders read eight books in a school year. No one complained to me that it was too much. Then the school world got serious about teaching reading.

Today, it is only homeschoolers, and children at a few elite or unusual schools who even read as much as one whole book. Teachers are much too busy teaching reading to actually let their students read a nonfiction book.

What they now do in reading class is learn to analyze paragraphs. They tackle reading “strategies.” In history they do teacher created units. Some are elaborate. The teacher chooses to teach about “immigration.” She may take a chapter, or maybe a few paragraphs from a book, combine it with an original document and an activity—and there you have it. No one has to actually read a book. The teacher has learned a lot putting it all together (unless he buys the unit ready-planned). The students? Well, the activity was fun.

As to science, it’s “hands on” all the way. Is there any compelling reading to complement those terrific experiments? For heavens sake, what does reading have to do with scientific thinking?

You can see this is a circular argument. Our kids can’t read because they only read paragraphs so let’s do something about it and give them more and more paragraphs. Yikes, there’s something wacky here. When they get tested, most schoolchildren can’t even read those paragraphs they’ve worked so hard to analyze.

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  2. Shelley

    Unlike you, I’m a writer of narratives, but not non-fiction ones. What you say here, though, reminds me of my favorite book about teaching: James Herndon’s How To Survive In Your Native Land. I think he’d agree with what you say here about reading.

  3. call me old-fashioned

    Way back in 1967/68 I spent a year at Harvard and MIT. The 17 year old son of a neighbour was reading a simplified version of ‘A Christmas Carol’ for his High School graduation exam. At least he had to read all of it. Nowadays it might be just a few bullet points from a PowerPoint presentation.

  4. [...] First up, trivia questions from books 2 and 3, Making Thirteen Colonies and From Colonies to Country, corresponding to the History Channel’s first week of the series (premiering April 25th) dedicated to the colonies and the Revolutionary war.  Don’t be discouraged if most of these feel obscure, chances are they were bonus questions back in Middle School. The answers are at the bottom of the post. Be sure to check back in the coming weeks for more fun content related to our nation’s great history.  Read an original post by Hakim here. [...]

  5. [...] Bauerlein’s Literary Criticism, an Autopsy (1997). Recently, however, Joy Hakim has claimed in “Let Them Read Whole Books” at the Oxford University Press Blog [...]

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