Wednesday, January 11, 2017

How to teach children to hate reading

I've been caught up in a bit of what we retired homeschoolers might call "rabbit trails." That's what happens when you get interested in something, so you read about it, and then you find out some other thing related to that first thing, and you read about that, and pretty soon you hate all of humanity and wish the giant asteroid would hurry up and get here already because trapped rabbits at the end of a trail are the least of your worries.

Okay, I'm kidding--homeschoolers' rabbit trails usually lead to things like mom finding out exactly what wagon train pioneers ate for supper and trying, with the dubious assistance of small but eager children, to make a meal that will sort of look like pioneer food when you post it for bragging rights on Pinterest. Nobody will eat that meal because the pioneers wouldn't have, either, if they'd had any better choices, but nobody on Pinterest and none of your Instagram followers ever need to know that part. And your children will get the benefits of a living history lesson, by which I mean they will suddenly appreciate life in the 21st century enough to quit begging for screen time for five minutes or so (at least, that's what I hear; back when my kids were young enough for those rabbit trail kinds of things we didn't have any portable screens in our house yet).

But as a non-teaching adult who is easily distracted by stuff on the Internet regardless of whether or not I am presently homeschooling, the kinds of rabbit trails I hop down these days usually involve things like political issues or religious matters or other things of that nature, which usually end with wistful dreams of giant asteroids, if I'm lucky. And sometimes, despite the whole "retired homeschooler" thing, I get caught up in issues pertaining to education.

This happened recently when a friend posted something to Facebook that mentioned Lexile (tm) scores. I didn't know what those were, and I started searching the Internet. What I found appalled me: apparently, while I was naively homeschooling my children in the belief that reading was the one subject you didn't have to micromanage or direct, while I was remembering my own childhood happiness whenever I could be surrounded by a pile of books at least three of which I hadn't already read eight or nine times (nobody's fault but mine; I'm still an inveterate re-reader of books I enjoy), the school system went on this aggressive campaign to change the "Reading Is Fun" idea I grew up with into a systematic attempt to stamp out any vestige of joy children might find in the act of immersing themselves into a book.

There seem to be at least three separate attack plans being used to carry out this battle plan. The first is the combination of mandatory daily timed reading sessions and the recording in a notebook of what was read, how far the student got in the story, how long the student actually read, how many times the word "and" appeared in the child's reading selection, and the like. Okay, I'm kidding about that last part, but let's be honest: if you're going to suck the joy from a child's pleasure reading by turning it into drudgery busywork of the worst kind, you might as well ask how many times the words "and" or "the" cropped up, and make the child do some extra math homework while you're at it.

The second plan of attack in the battle to destroy every child's joy in reading is the proliferation of reading quizzes. Now, I'm not an opponent of some basic reading comprehension quizzes forming part of a well-rounded educational plan. The problem is that if you train children to expect to have to answer quizzes on just about anything or everything they read, you are training them not to read at all, but to scan blocks of text looking for facts that will crop up on the next quiz. The child who becomes good at this will be able to tell you that Jill got mad after her ice cream cone dripped on her red coat because she was distracted by the little black dog that ran by her at recess, but the child may, in gathering this collection of easily-quizzable facts, totally miss the point that Jill is a spoiled brat who cares more about fashion than about her friend Polly's heartbreaking loss of the dog her grandfather gave her right before Gramps went into the hospital. In other words, the child may be so busy collecting quiz grades that he or she never progresses from mere reading comprehension to the level at which one begins to analyze the deeper elements of a story.

And that's before we even get to the problem of standardized tests making up such nonsensical questions that even the author of a work can't answer the questions, which, it turns out, have nothing whatsoever to do with her work. Do we really think classroom reading quizzes are doing a better job here?

But both of these weapons, impressive though they may be, do not have the power to destroy a child's love of reading the way that Lexile (tm) scores do. As I learned through reading various bits of information online, a Lexile (tm) score is supposed to be a nice analytical way to measure how difficult a book is, and thus to make sure that your child is always reading books that match his or her level of reading ability. However, as I also gathered from the information available by the many nay-sayers who dislike this technique, what really happens is that a Lexile (tm) score is given based on things like how long the sentences are and how many difficult words the selection contains. It has little or no connection whatsoever to a book's content or the actual age-appropriateness of the writing.

This leads to absurdities such as various children's books (the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series was mentioned, as was one of Julie Andrews' books for children) being given a higher Lexile (tm) score than anything written by one Ernest Hemingway. In a classroom where the teacher is extremely strict, a child will not be allowed to read Hemingway if he or she has a personal Lexile (tm) reading ability score that puts his books in the "too easy for this student" category. Some bloggers mentioned other absurdities, too, such as a high school boxing up its copies of Elie Wiesel's book about surviving the Holocaust and sending the books to an elementary school because its Lexile (tm) score is too low for high school, or that under the Lexile (tm) system both Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises and Alice Walker's The Color Purple are appropriate books for...wait for it...the fourth grade.

It also leads to intensely frustrated children who discover that books which actually are age and content appropriate for them to read are considered "too easy" while books that make no sense to them are considered just right; and it leads to even more frustrated parents who must scour libraries for books with the "right" seemingly arbitrary number value only to discover that the books in question contain shocking levels of graphic sex or gratuitous violence, neither of which require long sentences or difficult vocabulary words (which can keep their Lexile (tm) score right in the middle-school range). In fact, the American Library Association is proud of its "Banned and Challenged Books Week," but fails to mention much of the time that the "challenges" to books often come from angry parents whose elementary and middle-school children are being assigned, because of Lexile (tm) scores as much as anything, books which contain near-pornographic levels of sexual content or scenes of violent crime including rape and murder, which is hardly the kind of content one expects one's fourth-grader or fifth-grader to bring home.

So with reading turned into a dreaded daily record-keeping chore instead of a free flight of imagination, with endless quizzes making children zero in on the mundane trees and completely miss the enchanted forest, and with the insistence on "books with the right score" making children give up, far too young, on the books that actually capture their interest and entrance their minds and hearts, the plan to teach children to hate reading is well on its way to succeeding. Reading will become another dull and incomprehensible part of the school day, and children who used to pick up books for fun will have yet another reason to pick up smartphones instead. One wishes one didn't suspect that this is what is intended, because even a giant asteroid may not be enough to wipe out stupidity on that grand of a scale.