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Reading Leaders

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Last week was the anniversary of the death of the author, C.S. Lewis. While many read his work as exploration of great thought or of profound insight into loss and grief, most of us have come to know him as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia.  The entire series have been revisited by us, and with great joy, we agree with him that "no book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally - and often far more - worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond." Where would we be without the world that reading opens for us?

Reading is a skill. It allows us to journey into fantastical places, enables boundless understanding, and joins us with those experiences we will never have and the lives of people we will never meet. It opens doors and, when unattained, leaves one lost, unable to navigate the world. Learning to read is an essential survival skill.

Websites, articles, and books invite us to teach a love of reading. But just as we cannot teach a love of gardening, sports, or science, or theater, or math, or driving...we may not be able to teach a love of reading to all students. We can model, encourage, offer lessons, give experiences, but we cannot teach how to love reading.  Perhaps that may be a mistaken objective.  What we can do is teach reading ...and teach it well.  How we teach it and how we encourage it influence how students relate to reading. Sometimes, those who do not love or don't it very well become marginalized or left behind. But, for those of us who have come to love reading, happiness, respite, wonder, information, and food for the soul all are rewards for sitting down with the written word.

Here is what we knew in 2007. According to the National Endowment for the Arts report To Read or Not to Read:  A Question of National Consequence:

Self-reported data on individual behavioral patterns, combined with national test scores from the Department of Education and other sources, suggest three distinct trends: a historical decline in voluntary reading rates among teenagers and young adults; a gradual worsening of reading skills among older teens; and declining proficiency in adult readers.

How can we stop this decline?  We have no indication that the trend has changed since this report. Leading schools in which we have children of all ages, beginning readers as well as those waning ones mentioned in the report, we might consider refocusing our efforts in how we value, teach and encourage reading.  Some students, for many different reasons, will not read as well as others.  And, many more will not arrive at a love of reading that inspires them to read for a lifetime. 

Let's be honest, not all educators love reading.  Some leaders seldom read beyond the daily print news. Some elementary teachers love to teach reading, but are not lovers of reading themselves.  Secondary teachers, many of whom are not teachers of the language arts, are also not lovers of reading themselves.  So what if we shift, just for a brief period of time, and examine the feelings, beliefs, and interests of the adults engaged in the teaching and use of reading?

Whether in the elementary grades where formal language acquisition and reading begins or in the secondary grades where language acquisition becomes more critical to subject area mastery, how the adults feel about reading is important.  The attitude they attach to it can change the way students may feel about reading.  In her Edutopia article entitled Ten Ways to Cultivate a Love of Reading in Students, Elena Aguilar's list consists of the following.  She suggests we should:

  • read ourselves
  • share our reading experiences
  • invite students to socialize around reading
  • take a field trip to a university library or bookstore
  • invite students to listen to audio books
  • invite authors to speak
  • make connections between reading and other issues
  • learn about specific needs for specific populations
  • teach reading strategies

These are good guidelines. We wonder if the list would be better named, '10 Ways to Cultivate Good Readers.' We want to cultivate good reading and learning habits in our students. For most of us, isn't that is the passion that brought us into the field of education in the first place? 

Perhaps if we pay attention to the cultivation of reading and learning behaviors of the adults in our learning communities we will be better informed.  How do educators feel about reading themselves?  Are they good readers?  Are the voracious readers?  Do they love reading?  Do they read manuals or watch videos on YouTube?  What does all this mean for the teaching of reading to children? If the adults examine their reading and learning behaviors and their attitudes about them, then honest conversations can take place about how to engender these skills in students. 

If we set out to make students lovers of reading, without intention, we can be creating a dichotomy and an unintended consequence of marginalizing or even shutting down our learners who don't love reading.  If we elevate the value of reading, model and communicate, teach skills and solutions to reading challenges and set a goal of 'all students will read well,' perhaps the love of reading, for some, will be part of the result.

For leaders who choose this hard work of loving learning and wanting it for others, C.S. Lewis offers a gift. Leading can be a lonely business. But Lewis wrote "we read to know we are not alone". Certainly, as we celebrate Thanksgiving, it is good to remember that and give thanks for our ability to read. 

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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