If I’m being honest, I don’t remember. I really can’t recall the books I first fell in love with. Those I remember come back to me hazily. My dad always told us the story of the Wide-Mouthed Frog. My mom read to us from Classic Disney books and Frog and Toad. Stories came in all shapes and sizes, too. There were Adventures in Odyssey tapes. My favorite was called Terror from the Skies. The playacting company was putting on a dramatization of aliens invading. Some of my favorite characters missed the announcement that it wasn’t real. Comedy and terror and fun ensued. From there, I fell in love with Goosebumps and some Star Wars books. My mom read Harry Potter to us, all the way up into middle school.
Now, why’s this important? Because it shows my parent’s efforts to have us read. There are a lot of large scale pushes happening in education at the moment. One of the little directives in Common Core focused on the emphasis of nonfiction texts. I have nothing against that at all. Students need to be exposed to the kind of reading that the rest of their lives will demand of them. That’s perfectly sensible. However, we fall in love with reading earlier, during the adventures and escapades, through laughter and fear. We fall in love with characters that make us turn the next page. We drop our jaws over plot twists and wring our hands during those intense, cliff-hanging scenes.
There is a thinly-veiled, mostly ignored problem with about 15% of my students. They can’t read. They’re well behind in their grade level. They struggle to draw meaning from the page. They struggle to care about fiction because real life is already tackling them full force. I have students that take about an hour to read articles that some of my honors students can read in about 5 minutes. Why?
This isn’t an article based off of statistical analysis. I didn’t run around the neighborhood polling families and comparing results. I just talked to my kids. I asked them questions. I wanted to know what they did most days and how their lives at home looked. From the MAJORITY of my students that struggle to read, here were the common threads:
1. I just go home and watch Netflix. Now, I could argue strongly about the importance of television and movies for forming a relationship with story. In fact, our modern day cinema is as important as it has ever been in terms of bringing an element of wonder and vision to the literary world. However, my students treat it as a lifeless activity. They’re not engaged with the story. They just watch it. And when it’s done. They don’t think about it again. They watch something else. They’re not forming literary or analytical habits through this practice because no one’s asking them questions about what they’re watching. No one’s asking them to think deeper.
2. Most of them were never read to as a child. Many actually said that they don’t have books at home. No room for them or no need for them or no desire for them. When pressed, most of these students admitted their parents don’t ever read. So no models of the behavior, either. These are the same students that go home and are never pressed about their homework. Some of them show up without bookbags or materials most days. But the biggest factor is the reading. When they were little, they didn’t listen to the same stories we all did. They didn’t curl up and wait for mom or dad to read the two books they’d picked from the shelf. There weren’t books. There weren’t shelves. There wasn’t reading.
3. Most of them float from home to home or person to person. The life of their parents is unstable. Changes and dramas take them to uncle’s couch or grandma’s living room. They sleep in transit, they never know what they’re going to eat, they aren’t sure of much.
So now what?
Again, I can’t conclude this from data and analysis. I’m not coming at you with spreadsheets and cold data. These are just the stories of my students. If there is one, massive request I could make of every single parent out there, it would be to read to your kids. Read to them. If you want to improve their education and if you want to increase their literacy, give them opportunities to engage with story. I really do look forward to a day when I can open up a textbook in class and teach it with the full confidence that every student, regardless of their race, background, socioeconomic status, can read and understand what we’re reading.