When It Comes to Reading: No More Guilty Pleasures

I am a lifelong bookworm, always in the middle of a book, sometimes several. I was excited to hear that what I always suspected was true: my reading habit is good for my brain. As a classroom teacher, one of my goals was to encourage my students onto the path of the bookworm or at least let them discover some pleasure in the act of reading. (I blog about my book reading and buying habits at In One Place.)

So, it was with great sympathy that I read Andrew Carle’s post about his young cousin’s reaction to the summer reading requirement. Essentially, by being required to read at a certain reading level, the cousin was left with nothing of interest to read.

This is an experience that I understand. In my middle school classroom, I ran a reading workshop ala Nancy Atwell. One of the guidelines was that students were allowed to choose what they wanted to read. I offered support for those efforts with a large classroom library, book circles where students shared their reviews, and my own suggestions. But I made every effort not to dictate. After all, I spent an entire summer reading every Nancy Drew mystery I could get my hands on even though they were probably way below my own reading level. My mother might have rolled her eyes but she just kept making trips to the library with me, feeding my love of Nancy but, even more so, my love of books and reading.

Then, my middle school adopted Accelerated Reader. The up side was that it came with a special quiet reading time every afternoon. Coupled with my own reading time, it meant that some of my students might spend as much as 45 minutes a day with their noses in a book. The down side was that it came with a scale. That same Lexile Rank that Andrew talks about. Now, almost every book in the library was color coded based on its scale. Every child was tested, and the goal was to have them choosing books either on level or one level below or above their tested level. So much for personal choice. As the AR bandwagon rolled out, language arts teachers began requiring an AR book each marking period. In order to count towards the requirement, it had to meet those levels. So, readers like Andrew’s cousin found themselves tackling Moby Dick or Pride and Prejudice, books that were never really meant for 7th graders. They would have been happy with Mrs. Piggle Wiggle.*

Forcing anyone to do anything is a surefire way to lead them to hate it. Andrew’s conclusion echoes my own experience: strong readers who who hate to read. UPDATE: I reread the title of this post and realized it probably didn’t make sense. Here’s the context: on my reading blog, I often refer to some books as “guilty pleasures.” They are books that I perceive as “pop fiction” or less serious reading. But, in the spirit of choosing what I want to read, I’m going to stop feeling guilty about them.**

*Mrs. Piggle Wiggle is actually on my own reading list, loaned to me by a young reading friend. I’m looking forward to it even though most of the plot has already been shared with me by my friend. I won’t tell her that it ranks above Huck Finn.

**One of my very serious undergrads once chastised me because I was talking about how much I was enjoying the Twilight series. I got very defensive, describing how I had read Chaucer in the original Middle English along with most of the traditional canon as though somehow I had earned the right to just have fun reading a book.


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