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Reading Expert: Free Reading Isn't the Be All and End All

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What Michael L. Kamil, a reading researcher at Stanford University who was a guest on an EdWeek live chat today on adolescent literacy, has to say about free reading may surprise you. A transcript is now available.

Here was the question: "What is your opinion of allowing students time in class to read what they want, instead of following a rigid, prescribed reading plan?"

Kamil gave the following answer:

The research on free reading, reading practice, or recreational reading shows that having students read more does NOT lead to better reading. Instead it seems to show that good readers read a lot more than poor readers. Besides, the key to learning is not to read randomly but rather to obtain both organized and useful knowledge. ... If we believe it is important for students to learn mathematics, history, biology, etc., we have to direct students to read specific materials.

As a supplement, with appropriate instruction and feedback, some choice in reading does help, but only with those two variables added in.

Readers, what are your observations about students' free reading?

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Practice needs activity with reflection on how the activity is working. This is standard cognitive science. For example, hitting balls to warmup is not practice in golf. Practice means working on your swing. Clearly, what Dr. Kamil is saying is that students need to practice reading and also read academic content. Seems pretty reasonable to me. Reading what you like generally isn't practice.

On the other hand, Dr. Kamil stays in the University PhD mode of 'Damn those smart kids. How can we close the achievement gap, if they keep achieving.' This is the sickness in academia that kills. A Stanford-praised program of a decade ago in California rewarded readers for pages read. Good readers read simple books to get pages! Yeah!!!! My son gave up Harry Potter to read Dr. Seuss. Great job! Again, the researchers are a big part of the problem in US education; even in Dr. Kamil's reasonable research the prevailing bias shows.

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