Reblog: Why required reading is hurting America

Why required reading is hurting America by Connor Grooms

So obviously this is an opinion piece, and I’d really like some citations for his statistics, but I’m on the fence about agreeing with him. Required reading has its good points and bad points, and I think he’s making a lot of sweeping generalizations and presenting his opinions as solid fact. For my response, bear in mind this is coming from someone from a public school education in Canada, and from a voracious pleasure reader from a very young age. I’m also referring only to English/Western literature, since that’s my culture and the language I read in.

So, Grooms’ points are that a) kids are forced to do required reading; b) kids hate being forced to do things and hate the things they’re forced to do; so c) kids learn to hate reading by extension; and d) kids who hate reading become adults who don’t read and the world is doomed. He also assumes that reading is good: “Reading is immensely important and valuable. All of the successful people I know are voracious readers. Personally, I know that reading is responsible for most of my knowledge and skills…When the majority of our citizens aren’t actively improving themselves, learning and being curious, the intelligence of our country as a whole degenerates to mindlessness.”

Or as he sums it up “Required reading > dislike of reading > lack of reading > lack of critical thinking, knowledge > groupthink and mental laziness > degeneration of America.

Like I said, there’s a lot of assumptions here. First, he assumes that all children will hate all of the books they are forced to read, while it would be much more accurate to say that some children will hate some of the books they are forced to read. When you have a group of people reading the same thing they will all have different, equally valid, reactions to it. Fairly basic concept, and the reason why lots of books are written and published instead of just a few and why genres were created: people like different things. They even have specific likes and dislikes. That’s why I can say I like science fiction and fantasy and YA novels but I don’t like Westerns or self-help books or Twilight. I hated reading Lord of the Flies and Heart of Darkness in high school. They were boring and Heart of Darkness in particular made no bloody sense to me. That said, in university I was forced to read Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, and I LOVED it and started hunting down the rest of the Discworld books on my own. All required books, and I had different reactions to all of them, from dislike to hate to love. But hating a specific book didn’t mean that I grew to hate all books–it meant I grew to hate Joseph Conrad’s books. Of course, I was an established reader at this point so it was easy for me to distinguish between one bad book and all books are bad. Grooms does bring up a good point that younger children may not have the experience that leads them to make such a distinction, so encouraging them to like reading is still a good thing.

This first part is what I have the most objection to. The next step is not liking reading leading to not reading. I can’t argue too much with this point–not many people force themselves to do things they dislike when they have no motivating reason to do so. A lack of reading leading to a lack of critical thinking and knowledge is the basis for the modern education system and the public library system, which was originally invented to help citizens educate themselves on social and political matters of importance. Whether or not it’s true (I’m not arguing this point right now) in our culture we believe that someone who cannot read is uneducated and often a lack of education is conflated with being stupid (I’m not arguing about people who physically can’t read or have difficulty reading either, such as people with dyslexia). As a left-leaning individual, I personally can’t argue against his point that a lack of knowledge and critical thinking leads to groupthink and mental laziness, since I think that phenomenon explains the existence of the current Republican party in the States. And as for the degeneration of America, I think I covered that with the existence of the Republicans, and particularly the extremists such as the Westboro Baptist Nutcases…I mean church and that nonsense Kansas tried to pass last week. Off topic? Not really, if you carry through to Grooms’ conclusion. But let’s go back to the beginning and deal with required reading.

So, in defense of required reading in school. There are certainly benefits to required reading from an instructional point of view. The teacher can’t read 20-30 student-chosen books to adequately discuss each one with the student in the class, and class/group discussion becomes extremely difficult if everyone hasn’t read the same thing. There are also certain books that are part of our culture and school is a good place for students to learn where these references come from, for example when Bugs Bunny parodied Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven (do I date myself less if I say Tiny Toon Adventures or Animaniacs?). There are certain literary techniques, styles, symbolism, that students are required to learn to earn their credits in English, and usually required reading books are chosen because they are both good examples of those techniques etc. and because there are reams and decades of analyses written about them, so that there is both a body of research for the student to consult (often Coles Notes) and for the teacher to use for his/her lessons. Original analysis & original thought is for theses, not elementary/high school (let’s be realistic here). Reading the same things, learning the same information, gives people a common reference and understanding–this is why we educate people in groups, why we have educational standards, so people can agree on the basic facts if not the specific interpretations.

On the other hand, there are also a lot of benefits to independent reading and letting kids choose their reading material. Bernice E. Cullinan wrote this literature review on Independent Reading and School Achievement (complete with citations)–it’s from 2000, but the conclusions still hold up. The act of choice is a powerful one–for one thing, in this context it means that you can’t blame anyone else for your choice of reading material, good or bad. Children are taught to make choices–to choose their own clothes in the morning, to choose milk or juice with their cereal, to watch Sesame Street or Little Einsteins, to play with the doll or the truck. Partly choice teaches them independence, but it also teaches them preference–do they like the red shirt or the green to wear, do they like milk or apple juice, do they like the doll or the truck. They may like one on one day and the other choice the next; they may decide they like both, or neither, or one or the other. Preferences also change over time–your favourite colour may be pink at age five and blue at age ten. Reading is an experience that grows as you do–as you read more, you learn what you like and what you don’t like. Independent reading allows you to make these choices and determine what you like and don’t like. However, sometimes you still need to read the things you don’t like, because they have important information or because you might not know that you don’t like it until you read it.

One of my (many) volunteer jobs is in an elementary school library, where I supervise the library and circulation desk and provide reader’s advisory and reference help to the students. I don’t go into the classrooms to encourage the students to come to the library–I wait in the library for the kids to come to me. I know there are kids who only come in when they’re sent, who don’t really like to read when they don’t have to. I also know that there are some kids who come into the library three times in one day looking for something new to read, since they’re only allowed to borrow two books at once–they read through a book in a few hours and come for another one (I have some suspicions about hiding pleasure books in their textbooks, but I’m not the teacher–after all, I can’t have been the only kid who tried that (in my defense, my book was exciting and math was boring and I got caught anyway)). I also have a class of kindergardeners who LOVE to come for storytime and to pick out new books to bring home. Whether they can read the book themselves or pick something for the pictures or pick something for someone to read to them at home is up to them. They love to choose, and right now they all love to read.

So I absolutely agree with Grooms about letting kids pick what they want to read and hopefully letting that lead to a love of reading and learning. I just think that there needs to be a balance between the choice and the requirement. That balance is what the wonderful Forest of Reading program is based on–participating students must read at least 5 of the 10 books nominated, but they vote and choose their favourites to win the award. This means that it’s easy for the teacher to come up with lessons, especially since the program offers activities and discussion questions for each title, but the kids still get some choice of which of the books to read and they get a say in what they liked or didn’t like.

The article as posted is very short and as I mentioned obviously an opinion piece. I have no idea how seriously Grooms intended the article to be or why he wrote it, and he doesn’t explicitly state whether he thinks required reading should be done away with or balanced with independent reading, though he does display his clear disapproval of required reading. He’s a web designer, not a teacher or a librarian or a literacy expert or a researcher, and I have no idea how much he knows about current literacy theories or education standards. He does make it clear that reading is important to him, and his bio on his website lists what books he’s currently reading. What I do know is that an article that one of my friends reposted on Facebook just led to me writing more than three times the amount he did on the subject. So I guess I agree with everything in his article except his thesis–I don’t think required reading is bad. I think there are books that people don’t like, and unfortunately required reading has led to a lot of people having to read things that they don’t like. (Heart of Darkness I’m still looking at you). But it’s not fair to blame the entire practice of required reading for a few bad apples.

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