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Drop Everything...

Is reading a "joyful" activity? Is there more inherent value in transmission of subject-matter information by text than in getting lost in a ripping good story? Is setting aside time for all students in a school to read a good idea, or a colossal waste of time?

Responding to Dan Willingham's piece in the Washington Post, which says we can't expect improvement in literacy scores until reading skills are solidly connected to actual content, the Core Knowledge Blog strikes up a familiar tune: Teaching Content is Teaching Reading.

Well, sure. Comprehension is built on prior knowledge, just as acquiring more knowledge is dependent on comprehending text. The question is how to keep that cycle continuously spinning upwards for kids. It matters a great deal--our national reading scores show a chronic sag in comprehension as kids get older.

Some schools schedule time to "drop everything and read"--sustained, silent reading (SSR), done (theoretically) by everyone in the building. There is a research base supporting sustained silent reading--and the bright and shiny conventional wisdom is that students will practice reading daily, choose their own engaging literature, and also witness adults joyfully reading.

In theory, I think it's a justifiable idea. We make kids do plenty of things that aren't supported by research (copy definitions of vocabulary words in textbook glossaries, for example)--and nobody blinks an eye. Reading for knowledge and personal enjoyment certainly aligns with the mission of schooling.

The trick is getting all the adults on board as true believers, and setting the program up to succeed. My own middle school did 50 minutes of SSR each week--10 minutes per day, during homeroom. Which meant that the "silent" was inevitably broken by announcements ("Please do not mark students on Bus 23 tardy!"), and half of each brief SSR period was taken up with getting everyone settled in with reading material. I know that many teachers in my building either did not participate by reading, using the time for last-minute prep or grading, or saw SSR as just another annoying rule to enforce.

My own salvation came from encouraging kids to read whatever they wanted. I brought in old magazines from home--and the boys left dozens of old Car and Driver issues in tatters. Music magazines, even Time and Newsweek, were popular. Of course, some kids brought in their own bookmarked young adult fiction for 10 delicious minutes--and others opened textbooks to read what should have been read the night before. But they read every morning. Slowly, slowly it became habit, a tiny oasis in an otherwise chaotic day.

The discussion over at CK Blog is not so sanguine. Are we supposed to agree that reading The Far Side for 30 minutes is part of a rigorous and coherent educational program? Why would we allow students to fritter away time reading for pleasure when there's so much core content they don't know? Do students benefit from a constant diet of mere...stories? How do we know if they're really reading, anyway?

There's a scolding undertone to some of these comments that bothers me. I love to read, both fiction and expository text, and believe I learn a great deal--and am intellectually enriched--from both. So yes--I do see "joyful" reading as a real and important goal. Students' most frequent interactions with text are vastly different these days, given delivery of information via Google and cell phone; spending time in sustained reading is a mark of thoughtfulness (as opposed to getting the answer, as quickly as possible).

But don't take my word for it. Tomorrow, this blog will feature a teacher who does SSR all day long--an interview with the reading teacher's reading teacher, Claudia Swisher of Oklahoma. Stay tuned.

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