Investigating Readicide, Part 1 -- The Problem

By Kristy Mall on October 12, 2011
  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

I have to admit that as a veteran teacher I have had a tough time swallowing state mandates, core standards, and No Child Left Behind. While I have no problem with holding teachers accountable, I do question who is setting the standards and whether or not they are truly effective. At what point did students stop being students and become numbers?

With pressure mounting, we are seeing widespread cheating and teachers who admit that they teach to the test. While I understand that testing is not going away — and thus, that my kids must be prepared for it — I wonder if the process is butchering education, and the love of reading along with it. Kelly Gallagher in his book Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It offers data that shows that this is exactly what we're doing in adopting multiple choice, just-scratch-the-surface methods of teaching reading.

What is "readicide," you ask? This term was coined to give a name to the death of reading. As Gallagher points out, the NCTE Principles of Adolescent Literacy Reform (2006) offers hard data showing that our teaching of reading is failing students:

• The Alliance for Excellent Education reports that one in four students is unable to read and comprehend the material in textbooks.

• Only half of the 2005 ACT College Readiness Benchmark scores indicated students were ready for college-level reading. This is the lowest in a decade.

• Only 13 percent of American adults are capable of performing complex literacy tasks.

Additionally, before NCLB began in 2001, our 4th graders ranked fourth in the world for reading scores. By 2006, we had dropped to tenth, according to the TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center. The curriculum changes are proving ineffective in raising reading ability. Worse, according to a 2007 National Center for Fair and Open Testing report, 70 to 100 percent of all schools will, sooner or later, fail to meet annual yearly progress requirements.

What factors are leading to this failure to teach reading? Gallagher suggests that there are four major factors behind this lack of ability:

1. Schools value the development of test-takers more than they value the development of readers.

2. Schools are limiting authentic reading experiences.

3. Teachers are overteaching books.

4. Teachers are underteaching books.

Factor 1: Schools value the development of test-takers more than they value the development of readers.

As schools have started removing novels and authentic texts from children and replacing them with drill and kill worksheets and chopped up reading books, they have begun to lose focus on the learning of reading. Students are given an array of practice tests and multiple choice tests. Hours are spent poring over students' scores and creating plans for raising them, yet how many hours are spent figuring out how well a student can write (unless they have a writing assessment coming up) or discuss a topic? By covering so many state-mandated standards so quickly, in order to teach them before test-taking time, we are not truly TEACHING the kids. They are getting a surface understanding of the information, but no depth. We are not using best practices when we teach children to the test.

A 2007 Science magazine article, "Opportunities to Learn in America's Elementary Classrooms," revealed that “the average 5th grader received five times as much instruction in basic skills as instruction focused on problem solving or reasoning; this ratio was 10:1 in 1st and 3rd grades.”

Factor 2: Schools are limiting authentic reading experiences.

Schools are doing away with sustained silent reading times in order to encourage more “academic practice,” despite the fact that studies show that reading increases fluency and ability. Gallagher suggests that you take a good look at your daily schedule. How much time is actually spent reading? Is any time spent reading for enjoyment? He uses the analogy that piano players have to practice to become adept at playing the piano. The same is also true for reading.

In addition, he shows that limiting children’s choices of reading (through Accelerated Reader [AR] and similar programs) can be detrimental. Refusing to let a child read a book because it isn’t on their level or because there isn’t a test on it is frustrating! Not only that, but Karin Chenowith found in her 2001 study that while there was a large amount of reading done in AR, within a month of leaving, participants' reading levels dropped lower than that of nonparticipants. In addition, their motivation was purely driven by points. Another study published by the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, "Accelerated Reader: What Are the Lasting Effects on the Reading Habits of Middle School Students Exposed to Accelerated Reader in Elementary Grades?" showed that once students left an AR program, they read on average ten hours fewer than nonparticipants. AR was actually detrimental to their reading.

Factor 3: Schools are overteaching books.

Gallagher points out that while asking questions about books, giving tests over them, using them to illustrate a point, etc., is very worthwhile, it CAN be overdone. He refers to the “tsunami” of questions that students are often hit with in reading. By chopping up books, we sometimes place value on the trivial instead of the meaningful, or become so busy trying to teach multiple skills through the book that we lose the value and meaning of it. We may also, inadvertently, be insuring that our students will never want to read that book or one like it ever again.

Factor 4: Schools are underteaching books.

Schools should not only be encouraging students to read, but also finding the balance between effective and ineffective reading practices. By not exposing our students to books and other worthwhile texts we risk creating illiterate students — or worse, students that choose NOT to read.

While I have cited data to support all of these claims, I would encourage you to go through Gallagher’s book yourself, and encourage your district's principals, teachers, administrators, and board members to do the same. The book provides an avalanche of data supporting these statements, as well as suggestions for things that you can do in the classroom to prevent readicide. As Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust points out, the quality of teaching can affect the level of students’ performance for years. Fifth grade students, for instance, are still impacted by the teaching that they received in 3rd grade.

I hope you'll return for my next post, which will focus on what we can do to raise our level of teaching so that students are more successful readers AND test takers! And if you have thoughts on Readicide, please comment below.

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