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If You Read This Post, I’ll Shave My Head*

School is sucking my son’s love of reading down a greasy, hair-lined drain and I’m afraid it won’t come back.

My handwringing may seem dramatic and over-the-top, but you didn’t just spend three hours trying to a second-grader to read a book for his homework. This is a boy who taught himself how to read at age four, who read everything from soup labels to his big sister’s chapter books as a Kindergartner. We beamed at his ability and greed to read. With literally hundreds of books on our playroom shelves, he had plenty to keep him busy for years to come.

But it hasn’t worked out that way. Reading is drudgery to him. Parents are told if children see them reading, they are more likely to raise a reader. We are bombarded by book fairs and fliers sent home in backpacks encouraging us to spend more and more money on books. Our shelves burst. My husband and I have bachelor’s degrees in English Literature, so reading isn’t just a passing fad around here. We write a check to a company in Iowa every month, paying for the privilege of having those diplomas in a box in our closets.

I want to make it clear my gripe isn’t with my children’s teachers. I genuinely like them and have no worries while my kids are in their care. I realize they must follow curriculum guidelines. My main concern is how schools today handle reading homework. It is actively eroding their love of reading – I can see it, and I hate it.

What is it they used to say when we were kids? Reading is FUNdamental! I submit the FUN has been carefully carved out in the name of state-mandated testing and fear of failure. Reading, as an act, has been reduced to something to compare and measure. It is just damental.

Part of all our kids’ nightly homework is to read for a mandated amount of time, measured by the day, week, or month. A child could chose to read the phone book for 20 minutes or Garfield Gets Fat for 20 minutes or Charlotte’s Web for 20 minutes. Either way, he’d receive the same smiley face. Isn’t there something wrong with this? These days, school seems to be more about quantity and numbers than thoughtful work or quality. Kids are given the power to choose their reading material, which may encourage reading but also thumbs its nose at the true classics of children’s literature.

When I was a kid, this was a typical reading assignment: Read chapters 3 and 4 in Tom Sawyer. There was no clock to beat, other than a looming bedtime or the fact “Three’s Company” was on that night. The book was assigned. Everyone read it. Everyone was responsible for the content. If it took you fifteen minutes, lucky you. If it took you forty – learn to read more quickly! I submit it improved a child’s ability to read because the goal wasn’t time but a certain point in the story. The book didn’t snap shut in the middle of the third paragraph halfway through the third chapter because the timer on the stove made a ding.

Kids learned to retain information, plot, character because that was the point of the assignment – not meeting a goal to plot on posterboard to win a pizza party. The pleasure in reading wasn’t found in making the teachers spend the night on school’s roof because 10,000 books were read by the student body in one month.

When schools resort to goofy stunts to encourage reading, it betrays failure on a deep level. It sends the message to kids that reading is so distasteful the only remedy is a pep assembly where the principal shaves his head as reward.

Some may call these antics a celebration of an accomplishment. Back when I was a kid, that was called an “A” on the report card. But wait. They don’t do that anymore, either.

*1,000,000 people

How do you feel about your child’s reading program at school?

Author: gretchen

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  1. I don’t have school-age children (yet). But this topic runs rampant in discussions with my friends and family with kids going through this now.
    Timed reading is absolutely ridiculous! It’s hard for me to believe that school’s are focusing more on a kid’s “reading endurance” than overall comprehension! Twenty-some-odd years ago when I was in 2nd grade, we had to give some type of book report (whether oral or written) in order to receive our “smiley face”.
    In the grown-up “real world”, nobody cares if you can read for 3 hours straight! What people do notice is how effectively you can communicate your thoughts and knowledge on any given subject.
    ~Jody (Mile High Mommy)

  2. I agree. My oldest is in Kindergarten now…but other moms with older kids are forever talking about all the reading “time.”

    I’m dreading it already.

    Great article…love you style 🙂

  3. Another reason my wife and I are considering home schooling (she’s a stay at home mom voluntarily and has a bachelor’s in psych) – apart from some time and testing requirements, we don’t have mandated ‘reading time’ or ‘sorry, we can only spend 50 minutes on any one subject’ or ‘we’ve cancelled recess due to liability’ or even ‘we can’t track because some kids might feel stupid’. (Hint: everyone else in the world uses tracking – it lets the smart ones get ahead and the slower ones get more time to get the stuff that actually matters down).

  4. My daughter’s school has what’s called an AR program. The student is given a grade on the number of AR points they accumulate during the course of the year. These AR points are given when the student, during library time, goes to the computer and takes an AR test of an AR approved book. The student then receives a score based on number of answers that are correct, difficulty of the book, and length of the book. These points then through a series of formulas equate to the AR grade which is a large part of the student’s language arts subject grade. Students can’t cheat the system by year after year testing on the same books because the system keeps a history of the books you have read and your scores. This system and record stay with you as long as you remain within that school district.

    There is no specific required amount of time the student has to read each night, no required number of books to get through because some books earn more points than others, and with each report card or interim report the AR points are reflected and a guide on what the student needs point wise in order to achieve a certain grade is provided. This way parents and encourage their child to read more books or more difficult books to increase that grade if necessary.

    All books in the library have a sticker if it’s an AR approved book with the total number of points you can score with that book. The great part about it is the children must understand the plot, characters, etc. in order to get a good score.

    This system has worked well. My daughter in the past did not shown much interest in reading until this program began and I think she likes to see she’s accumulating points which are contributing to her grade.

  5. My second grader is going through the same thing. I try to explain to him the rewards and entertainment of reading but it’s a no go and he is also a fab reader. He would just rather be doing something else. I also give up.

  6. “The book didn’t snap shut in the middle of the third paragraph halfway through the third chapter because the timer on the stove made a ding.”

    This is exactly what happens at our house. I am SO with you on this one. Good stuff Gretchen.

  7. Oh, I have such a heated opinion on this topic that I don’t think this little comment box could hold it all. Let’s just say that the public school’s idea of reading really has little to do with literature and love for the written word. There goal is only to get kids to read and that is it. Well, with such a low goal is it any wonder that kids are unenthused?

    I’ve seen a few good programs. I know that they are out there and some school are smart enough, or privileged enough to use them. I just wish I could see more of them and less of the bad ones.

  8. I totally agree–and my other beef is that recording all those stupid 20 minute increments is a huge chore that Mom ends up having to monitor. It’s a real pain, especially with several children with different varieties of charts. I generally end up filling up the chart at the end of the month and sending it back.

  9. You’re right on. These past two nights, my second-grader’s reading homework was to read two different non-fiction books. The first one was called “From Camel to Canoe: Transportation in Inda and Tibet.” Yeah, he couldn’t wait to dive into that one. And then last night’s book was another nonfiction book called “Toes.” It was how animals and people use their toes. ??? I know nonfiction can be wonderful for drawing in kids who don’t enjoy reading, it gives them a purpose for reading because they want to learn about the subject of the book. But transportation and toes? Ugh.

    (Sorry I did the titles in quotes, I don’t know how to underline in comments.)

  10. Gretchen,

    I am with you on this. Someone else posted that their school has an AR program, which tests comprehension and kids earn points. Our school has begun doing this in the last few years and I really think it’s such a better system than the “20 minute rule” because the kids get excited to read the whole book, and actually READ the book, so they can earn points. They get certificates based on how many points they earn, and the top readers in the school get recognized each trimester at an awards ceremony.

    Currently, our Kindy classes don’t participate in that, because most of them do not have the reading level to participate yet. So, kindy still has the 20 minutes a night rule. Bad mommy that I am, I blow it off. I have never once told Alyssa that she has to read for 20 minutes. If I HAVE to tell her to read, I tell her she needs to read a book, or pick a chapter book and read a chapter or two. Usually I don’t HAVE to tell her to, she just does it on her own.

    My jr.high student though, they have gotten beyond the “20 minutes” thing and actually set a number of words per week. she has to read 25000 words per week, and write a brief summary of what she read. Problem is, some weeks she reads 40000, and gets an A for the week. Other weeks she reads 25000 and gets an A for the week. Then there are the busy weeks where she reads only 15000 words and gets a C because she didn’t read enough. there is no balance. It’s not based on an average. each week is independent of the other. This means on busy weeks she “cheats” and grabs a book she has already read and “skims” it so she can get the appropriate number of words “read”.

    I don’t have a problem with her reading a book again. I have several books that have been read and re-read on my shelves. But I feel like it’s a matter of quantity over quality. Wouldn’t it be great for her to have the chance to read a new book without the pressure of getting the required count down? And my bigger issue is that she tends to pick “easy” books because they are faster reads, which keeps her from trying some of the classics, which require a little more effort to read.

  11. My son’s program seems to be good so far, but he’s only in 1st grade. He is in a special reading group because he was a little behind due to his epilepsy, but is catching up great from the extra help. They have a “reader” they read out of and also come home with a small book each week to read along with us.


  12. Why be a part of this? I mean, you as a parent can sign off on the “My child read for 20 minutes” sheet, right?

    Why not tell your child they can read for as long as they want, and just lie on the form. Clearly the form is to force at least 20 minutes from those kids that don’t read at all. Since your child has no problem reading, it doesn’t apply to him.

    Lie on the form. And tell your child why you are lying. Could be a good opportunity to teach the child how to wade through a bureaucracy.

  13. I have wondered at the huge focus on reading as the key to success. I know plenty of successful people who don’t read, and frankly, I would have been more successful had I read less and studied more. I don’t really get why we’re dumbing down our educational standards–how does that actually help our children succeed? Don’t know.
    Good post though. Do you have to shave your head yet?

  14. You’re right – by creating goals that have more to do with prizes and less with the pleasure of reading, it almost would make a kid feel like there’s something wrong with them if they actually enjoy the act itself.
    I’ve read a bit about the whole homework thing in general. My kids aren’t in school yet, but it certainly sounds to me like the emphasis on testing has increased the amounts of homework so much that it has lost it’s point.

  15. I understand completely what you are saying, but I also remember taking timed reading AND math tests as early as the second grade, and I’m 39 years old. I don’t think this is a new phenomenon.

    However, I my kindergarten daughter FLUNKED the report category of “completes daily work in appropriate time”…ummmm, she is six??

    I do realize that in today’s testing culture, you do need to be able to thing/read/comprehend fast, but I do agree that it’s sucking the fun out of everything.

  16. i vaguely remember the AR program from when I was in school. I wonder if it’s the same thing?

    I am with Sven who wonders if we can just lie. I would only condone that if I knew for a fact my kid was reading at or better yet above his grade level. The problem is, I bet lots of kids who are below that goal have parents lying on those forms all the time.

    As for hitting a required word count or time limit, does reading for other subjects count? I mean, if you have to finish two chapters of your history text or complete other research, wouldn’t that count toward your requirement.

    Any teachers out there care to comment?

  17. Amen! Reading *is* its own reward. So is learning for that matter. Too bad so many schools make both about as much fun as a tooth extraction.

  18. I remember when teachers read to us in class. It was used as a reward for getting all the other subjects done that day. I wonder if this still goes on.

  19. Our library had a similar contest — 15 minutes a day for the summer and then you get passes to a museum. I didn’t think much about it, but for a class project, it would seem like it would be better to have the goal of reading a certain amount and thinking and talking about it with others. To be honest, I don’t remember having any reading homework until 6th grade when the class read Watership Down. This time mandated reading reminds me of the free time reading we had in 7th grade at the beginning of English class (I’ve looked back on that and thought, wow, how great for the teachers). I remember feeling like it was kind of a waste of time to just sit and read in class for 10 minutes.

  20. Well, I have an awful lot to say on this one too . . . I hate to be a naysayer, but the AR program doesn’t work very well either, in my opinion. It limits kids to books that have tests on them, sticks them into a “category” of which books they can read, so they aren’t allowed to read up or down (which saps the fun out of picking a book), and it’s very easy to cheat. I do a weekly reading log with my students–fifteen minutes a night or two hours a week, they can split it how it works for them. They are always encouraged to read more–that’s considered the minimum. They can read anything they like–the point is that they have to enjoy it. I do this because studies show that daily reading builds fluency. And any reading is better than no reading, which is what most of my students would do. See, education is as you say–different from when we were growing up. It’s now mostly about bringing the lowest students up to par. And this is supported by research–we want these kids to be educated, have diplomas, etc., because it is better for society. However, it is very unbalanced, the amount of money we put into them compared to the amount of money we put into the gifted programs, and then what about the middle kids, who often go through school anonymously? Oh, it’s a majorly faulty system, and there are certainly no easy answers–I think about all of this daily as I watch the complex organisms that are my classes grow, change shape, self-destruct, regenerate, etc.

    But here is the thing I’ve been trying this year: I read aloud to every class for at least ten minutes a day out of a book of their choice (they vote). Sometimes they have to write about it, sometimes they get to just listen. We don’t have “schoolish” discussions about these books–they are picked for pleasure. They are often the only book a kid will really read all year–those who don’t turn in reading logs, who own no books, etc. The kids absolutely love this. They mutiny if I try to skip it. They remember what is read aloud to them far better than what they are forced to read in a textbook. Research supports what I’m doing, but my own life is a bigger influence for me: my mom read aloud to me until I was about twelve, every night. She still read aloud to me later when i was home sick, or when we went on trips. She loved the books as much as I did. She taught me to love them, not because I watched her reading them (because she rarely had time while I was awake) but because we experienced them together. Research (again) also shows that books come alive when a child makes a connection with the book: I submit they become even more alive when they make a connection with the book and another live person. “We read to know that we are not alone”–on my bulletin board. Reading aloud has brought more harmony to my classrooms and deeper connections with my kids, and they will often pick up the sequels or other books in the same genre or by the same author on their own.

    So sure, it would be nice if kids naturally loved books–but there is some stiff competition for their attention out there. It would be even nicer if I had a class of ten children and could guide them in their reading choices and have individual daily discussions via chatting or letter about their current reading–that’s what is considered best practice right now. But neither of those are realities for most students, so this is what I do: I offer myself and my own love of books up to them. Because they are greedy for that–a connection to an adult, a connection to a life beyond the limits of their own. That they can get that through books may be a novel idea (no pun intended, but it kind of works well, doesn’t it?)

  21. To inkling – thanks so much for adding your perspective to the discussion. My own favorite childhood reading memory was when my dad would read chapter books out loud – only one or two chapters a night, leaving us hungry for the next installment! I find it interesting to think back now, that he picked books he liked best- adventure stories like White Fang. My sibs and I have become lifelong readers, and I think this is a huge part of why.

  22. You’ve touched a nerve with me here. I have been railing against the reading log for years now for the same reasons. Add to your points most parents just sign the log even if the reading isn’t done. My girls’ school gives certificates for fast food restaurants (let’s not even go there) for the months that the logs are completely filled. I refuse to teach my children to lie for French fries, so most months they are the only poor white trash kids who don’t get certificates! We are a reading family. We read novels to our kids every single night and have for years. The older girls have their noses in books every chance they get. But that doesn’t mean that no night goes by where we can’t get to it or that we need to write down what we read and respond to it every night. Life long readers do not do this. Now I meet with their teachers early in the year and explain my position on the forced reading logs. I ask them to please consider what it is you are trying to accomplish – life-long readers. Please consider that we have already created this in our children (our way). And then we take a pass. Why set a goal that has already been met? Why waste precious time that can be focused on real learning? This is why schools and parents need to work together to set learning goals for students.

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