Learning to Read
Somehow I missed this when it first came out: when Obama announced national standards for reading and math, the Times held an online debate/discussion on the issue: tinyurl.com/ybucxbc The discussion is interesting enough in its own right, but the sentence that caught my eye came in a piece by Sandra Stotsky, a professor of education reform. She quoted the government’s proposal as saying, “Because the overwhelming majority of college and workplace reading is non-fiction, students need to hone their ability to acquire knowledge from informational texts…[and] …demonstrate facility with the features of texts particular to a variety of disciplines, such as history, science, and mathematics.” Dr. Stotsky was objecting that English teachers should not be required to teach the kinds of reading required in non-fiction texts. Friends, if I have ever seen a wide open door, that is it.
The government is proposing national standards — starting with reading and math. It is also stating what we all know — that the reading students will be doing much of their life requires that they know their way around non-fiction: how to understand the way pieces are organized, how to think critically, how to evaluate information, and how to formulate their own theories and responses. This is precisely what our books model — and how they differ from databases. A database presents material with no evident or expressed point of view — a book shows how an author assimilates that kind of raw data and turns it into usable ideas and information.
I was prompted to go over this by an experience with our 5 year old last night. Rafi is at that delicious moment where he is realizing that he can make out, he can master, the words he sees in books. At school he is getting plenty of Hop on Pop and Cat in the Hat. But last night came the first time he sat in bed with his mom determined to sound out, and thus own, as many words as he could. What was the book? It was a handbook of Bakugan creatures. For Rafi, it is not story and rhyme that leads him into reading, it is fact — being able to name creatures with their powers and their evolved forms. He wants to be able to read the catalog to invent his own stories, to relish his knowledge of each one — exactly the way his brother began his steps into reading by sounding out the name of a dinosaur. If (some) kids begin reading by gathering knowledge, and need to grow into readers skilled at evaluating knowledge — what happens in between. Where does the disconnect come between reading to know, and knowing how to read?