In 1977 I wrote Raising Readers along with Ruth Toor my long-time co-author and friend. Turning kids into lifelong readers has always been a priority of librarians. The challenge of doing so is nothing new, but in some ways it’s become more difficult. Your creativity and leadership is needed to instill a love of reading- and by extension its benefits – in all our students.
While I fully support the Common Core concept of students being able to do “deeper reading,” some of the ways it has been interpreted have created a barrier to having students become lifelong readers. The balance of fiction vs nonfiction texts was the first barrier. Although the distribution was to be across all subjects, many districts imposed it on ELA classes which benefited nonfiction readers, but “punished” fiction lovers. To be honest, books students have to read for a class—whether fiction or nonfiction—has never turned kids into lifelong readers.
That’s where librarians come in. While classroom teachers first teach students how to read, and in the upper grades expose them to “literary classics” which some do enjoy, it’s the librarian who brings the love of reading by connecting students with books matching their interests. The reduction and elimination of librarians in schools has meant that connection is not made for many, and even when a librarian is present there are challenges.
First and foremost is the emphasis on Lexile scores. Common Core stipulates the Lexile range for grade levels and too many libraries now have the collection so labeled. Students aren’t allowed to borrow books below or above their Lexile score. In the drive to improve students’ reading ability, administrators they are killing it.
I understand the need to use the Lexile score for instructional purposes, but it doesn’t work for personal leisure reading. It’s like the old “five finger rule” where you read one page and you lift your finger for each word you don’t know. If you lift all five fingers the book is too hard for you, assuming readers shouldn’t choose a book where they don’t know five words on every page.
When students read below their instructional level, they develop reading fluency. They can get into the book. They interact with characters whether it’s fiction or biography. If they are reading nonfiction, they easily grasp the history of a sport or team or how an invention was developed. They enjoy the book. And that’s what builds lifelong readers.
And students sometimes read above their Lexile level. It frequently happens with nonfiction readers who are interested in a particular subject. Some Harry Potter lovers started the series when it was “too hard” for them. But their interest motivated them and they took on the challenge. Why would you deprive a kid of that experience?
I have a similar quibble with Accelerated Reader and programs which are supposed to promote reading by awarding points for what students read – sometimes earning students tangible rewards. Because of the lure of the reward, kids tend to choose books based on how many points they will earn, not on their own interests. When there are no longer points for reading, they stop. That doesn’t create lifelong readers.
Ranganathan’s second law of library science is ‘Every reader his/her book.” While he was referring to the requirement of libraries to serve all their patrons without judgment, for me it also means connecting a student to the “perfect” book for him or her is very often the first step in becoming a lifelong reader.
From my own children and members of my family, to people I have met, that initial connection with a book was transforming. These people either were disinterested or even disliked reading until they were matched with the perfect book. It was as if a world opened up to them. Often they re-read the book – sometimes several times. The aforementioned Harry Potter fans are one example of this.
These new readers may have discovered a series or a genre then might begin reading the series or books in the genre almost obsessively. It’s not a problem. Fluency and a lifelong habit of reading are the results. Once the early euphoria of “where has this been all my life” has subsided, they are open to exploring reading more widely. And as we know, “Kids who read succeed.”
So where does your leadership fit in? Back to Lexile scores. What goes on in the classroom is fine for instructional purposes. You need to ground yourself in what we do as librarians and become “fluent” in explaining it so the distinction is understood. Collect stories of kids and their perfect book. Make sure the library is the welcoming place where kids can explore their interests and you can match them with just the right book regardless of scores.
What stories do you have of kids and the book that was perfect for them?