Thursday, October 6, 2016

My Letter To Tim Shanahan: In Defense of Independent Reading

Recently, I read the latest blog post by Tim Shanahan where he provides his strong opinions how giving students time to independently read in class is wasteful.  Although I usually value his opinions and have referenced him several times on my blog, I had a strong, visceral response to his latest piece (which can be referenced here). I felt compelled to stand up for the inclusion of independent reading time during the school day.  Thus, I crafted this letter.  I'm hoping he reads it.  

But, more importantly, I'm hoping that teachers who wish to instill lifelong reading habits in their students do not stop with Mr. Shanahan's advice and consider my perspective and the perspective of others on this important topic.

Dear Mr. Shanahan,

I think you sound like an impolite blogger, and perhaps a misinformed one.  
You've neglected to consider the following important points in your discussion of the value of independent reading.

You claim that time spent independent reading is wasted due to the fact that "even when they have been done well, the "learning payoffs" have been small.  By "learning payoffs," I am assuming that you mean students' progress on standardized exams (typically the way reading growth is measured in research studies) does not increase with the inclusion of independent reading time in schools. 

Some major problems exists with this claim.

Increased reading does lead to increased achievement.

  Research does support the idea that students who typically achieve higher on reading tests are also those who read more voraciously.  Those who score at the lower end usually read less.  Since research also shows that the amount of time middle school students typically spend reading outside of class declines as they grow older, finding time for students to practice reading independently in schools is crucial.  If we do not attempt to foster a love of reading inside the classroom, how will we help students who have not yet discovered the joy of reading on their own increase their reading minutes?  

      For many students, teachers are their only adult role models who read.  As educators, we cannot control anything that happens outside of the school day, but  we can control what happens during it. Your suggestion to "encourage them to build reading into their daily life when away from school" seems an implausible goal.  Giving all students access to quality texts and time to read them while you are with them is the right thing to do.    

       You mention that summer reading programs are also ineffective. I can see how they could be ineffective if teachers do not take the time to instill lifelong reading habits in their students during the academic year.  Why would students read during the summer months when they are not encouraged to read on a regular basis for most of the calendar year?  As teachers, we have nine months to build the momentum inside our classrooms so that the enthusiasm can spill over into the summer months. Building enthusiasm for reading looks and feels a lot different than "requiring" students to read -- one of your arguments for why independent reading can fail.

       This year in our school district, instead of requiring each grade level to read a specific title, we made our summer reading program more open-ended. We provided book suggestions but also allowed students to veer off this list and read what they wanted to read.  We book-talked several different titles and tried to motivate kids to "Read Harder," mimicking the adult challenge placed by Book Riot.  Assignments were not attached to this reading.  Students pledged to read a certain amount of books -- more than they would typically read in the summer months.    
6th Grade Summer Reading Survey

I'm not sure what you consider success to be with a summer reading program, but a portion of the survey results of one of our grade levels is detailed above.  As you can see, one out of three students in sixth grade reported reading more than they normally do each summer.  Many students read multiple titles of their own choosing.  Most importantly, less than one percent of our students reported having read nothing over the summer moths. I would consider this a success.     Perhaps even more telling were the comments from students about their summer reading. Overall, students were thrilled to have the freedom to choose their own books and reported that they read some books that were recommended (but not required) they normally wouldn't have read.  

Motivation and Learning Go Hand in Hand

           I'm sure you are aware that much research exists linking student engagement (i.e. motivation) to increases in learning.  Thus, spending time on increasing student motivation should, in fact, lead to increases in achievement.  You advise teachers that " If you don’t want kids to love reading, then sacrifice their instructional time to focus on motivation rather than learning."  This argument, although cleverly disguised, is a type we would use with students when poking holes in an argument and is a type of logical fallacy.  Your argument seems to suggest that teachers can focus either on motivation or on learning.  Can we not focus on both?  If I can focus on fluency and comprehension in the same class period, surely I can find the time to increase motivation and skills as well.
     Have we forgotten that we are teaching students and not robots? So much research exists about how reading literature can increase a students' ability to feel empathy toward others, for example.  When we are motivating students to read, we are increasing their social emotional skills and focusing on the whole child.   Too many times I've seen the pendulum swing in education from one extreme position to the other when really the middle road is the most logical approach. 

Just Because Reading Motivation Is Difficult To Measure Does Not Mean It Doesn't Matter

        You claim that the motivational impact of independent reading has been "studied less" and with "less payoff."  Since motivation is a key reason for including independent reading in a school day, the fact that it has been studied less should be a huge red flag in what researchers deem as important.  Let's be honest.  It's probably been studied less, because motivation cannot be measured with a paper and pencil test.  We can't stick a thermometer in a child's mouth and gauge whether he is more or less motivated to read.  We are less concerned with developing life long readers and more concerned with creating strong test takers.
       As classroom teachers, when we spend time instilling a love of reading in our students, we are flooded with qualitative data that is arguably more powerful when it comes to analyzing student engagement.  We might not be able to display our evidence on a pretty graph, but our data provides powerful stories about individual children and their immediate reactions to the books they read.  We witness first hand how reading for pleasure has the power to change lives.

 I will share with you just a few pieces of this powerful data that I vehemently believe outweighs any effect size that you could ever measure with a fancy math algorithm.  I'm sure every teacher has his/her own stories to add to this list.

  • I have witnessed an eighth grade at-risk student who admitted to having never finished a book from beginning to end take a book with her after independent reading time and carry it to each class that day, hiding the book behind her textbooks because she was so engrossed in the story.  And the next day, when that same student who 'hated reading' came running into my classroom with fire in her eyes to tell me she'd finished the book and needed a second recommendation, I considered independent reading a success.
  • I have witnessed struggling readers groan and complain when independent reading time is over, asking for a few more minutes.  You claim that your experience has found that good readers enjoy independent reading time while  "the other kids don't enjoy it much since they don’t read very well" worries me. Is perhaps the self fulfilling prophecy at work here?  Often, when teachers struggle with the delivery of a lesson or do not buy into a philosophy behind an activity themselves, they struggle to elicit buy-in from students as well.  I encourage you to read the research behind Carol Dwek's growth mindset to analyze where your delivery might have fallen short.  Student success is often tied closely to a teacher's belief in them.  If teachers believe independent reading time is only for good readers and that "the other kids don't enjoy it much since they don’t read very well," then of course students who struggle will "fake read" as Cris Tovani has coined it.  But if we instead find clever and creative ways to drum up excitement about independent reading and believe that all students can become life long readers, then all students (even the "other kids" you refer to) will over time develop a love of reading.  
  • In reading intervention, I once had a group of struggling readers get so excited to read the Hunger Games after we had modeled a strategy with the first chapter that they begged me to give them the last ten minutes of class time to read the next chapter independently.  I would love to say that these same students rushed home that evening like the girl in my last example and finished the Hunger Games on their own.  But they didn't.  Life got in the way, and as I mentioned earlier, I can only control the time I have with them. These students did, however, come in the next day begging to read more of the novel.  It wasn't a part of the lesson plan, but I can tell you that I made sure that I fit it in that day in hopes that at some point, a day would come when they would find time to bring home those books and do some reading on their own time.  
  • I have witnessed first-hand students swarm the learning center after school in hopes of arriving before their peers to check out books that have just been book-talked by their teachers.  You might argue that many of these students are already readers.  Perhaps you are right.  But if even one student is a non-reader who has suddenly been inspired to read for the first time,  the time was well spent.

As Kelly Gallagher reminds us, scarier than a world of illiterates, is a world of aliterates.

Not everything can be measured quantitatively.

Teachers:  Please feel free to share your own stories of independent reading success from your own experience.  Thank you for all you do to encourage a love of lifelong reading.  Keep it up!

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