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Diane Ravitch's Blog: Katherine Marsh: Why Children Don’t Fall in Love with Reading

Katherine Marsh is an award-winning novelist who writes for children in grades fifth-through-eighth. At that age in the 1980s, she remembers falling in love with books. But she knows that children today are not reading for fun as much as they used to. NAEP data say so; parents as well. She knows that the ubiquity of cell phones, the Internet, and television explain some of that decline in reading.

But she believes there is a problem with the way children are taught reading. No, she’s not talking about phonics and how children learn to read. She refers to the pedagogical approach that is required by the Common Core. Children in school are taught to analyze what they read. This technical mindset, she believes, kills the joy of reading.

She writes in The Atlantic:

What I remember most about reading in childhood was falling in love with characters and stories; I adored Judy Blume’s Margaret and Beverly Cleary’s Ralph S. Mouse. In New York, where I was in public elementary school in the early ’80s, we did have state assessments that tested reading level and comprehension, but the focus was on reading as many books as possible and engaging emotionally with them as a way to develop the requisite skills. Now the focus on reading analytically seems to be squashing that organic enjoyment. Critical reading is an important skill, especially for a generation bombarded with information, much of it unreliable or deceptive. But this hyperfocus on analysis comes at a steep price: The love of books and storytelling is being lost.

This disregard for story starts as early as elementary school. Take this requirement from the third-grade English-language-arts Common Core standard, used widely across the U.S.: “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, distinguishing literal from nonliteral language.” There is a fun, easy way to introduce this concept: reading Peggy Parish’s classic, Amelia Bedelia, in which the eponymous maid follows commands such as “Draw the drapes when the sun comes in” by drawing a picture of the curtains. But here’s how one educator experienced in writing Common Core–aligned curricula proposes this be taught: First, teachers introduce the concepts of nonliteral and figurative language. Then, kids read a single paragraph from Amelia Bedelia and answer written questions.

For anyone who knows children, this is the opposite of engaging: The best way to present an abstract idea to kids is by hooking them on a story. “Nonliteral language” becomes a whole lot more interesting and comprehensible, especially to an 8-year-old, when they’ve gotten to laugh at Amelia’s antics first. The process of meeting a character and following them through a series of conflicts is the fun part of reading. Jumping into a paragraph in the middle of a book is about as appealing for most kids as cleaning their room.

But as several educators explained to me, the advent of accountability laws and policies, starting with No Child Left Behind in 2001, and accompanying high-stakes assessments based on standards, be they Common Core or similar state alternatives, has put enormous pressure on instructors to teach to these tests at the expense of best practices. Jennifer LaGarde, who has more than 20 years of experience as a public-school teacher and librarian, described how one such practice—the class read-aloud—invariably resulted in kids asking her for comparable titles. But read-alouds are now imperiled by the need to make sure that kids have mastered all the standards that await them in evaluation, an even more daunting task since the start of the pandemic. “There’s a whole generation of kids who associate reading with assessment now,” LaGarde said.

Under the duress of Common Core, students are analyzing passages without reading the whole book. They are getting read to do the same on the tests. This is a surefire way to make reading a chore, not a pleasure.

The architect of the Common Core standards, David Coleman, used to claim all sorts of miraculous things that would happen, if everyone taught the way he wanted. Test scores would rise, achievement gaps would close, etc. in the decade after Common Core was introduced in 2010, none of those miracles came to pass.

Coleman believed that children needed to interpret what was put in front of them, without context. Understand the four corners of the text in front of them. This may make sense for a test, where the only thing in front of the student is a short passage, but it’s no way to read for pleasure.

Worse, this approach is a surefire way to turn reading into a dull exegesis of language, not into a source of joy.

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Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a historian of education. She is the Co-Founder and President of the Network for Publi...