Freddy says . . .

May 23, 2013
Few people know more about kids and reading than Freddy Hiebert. The California-based literacy expert and head of TextProject has devoted her life to helping beginning and struggling readers attain high levels of literacy. Hiebert also provides resources for teachers based on her years of research. Whether you want to learn more about the eye movements of students when they’re reading, how to enrich their knowledge of the world, or how to build their capacity for complex texts, Hiebert is the person to ask. Recently, we spoke with her about why it’s important for kids to read all year long, especially in summer. Q. Why are so many students in the U.S. reading below grade level? A. We’re seeing an enormous stagnation of reading rates, particularly in middle school. Students don’t have something called stamina. Why not? They’re not reading enough. Q. How can we get them reading more? A. Educator Jean Chall recognized the need for popular literature in students’ reading development. That’s one of the places you get lots of grit and build stamina to read stories that are not as compelling initially. Reading really popular things is something adults do, and we want to let kids know that that’s OK. Education is not just about the “canon.” It’s also about reading to enjoy and to find out how writers create different worlds. Q. How can we help kids become more proficient readers? A. We need to step away from the jargon and talk more about words, ideas, and knowledge. Yes, understanding syntax is important, but acquiring vocabulary comes first—and a rich vocabulary is something that many of our students lack. In the 19th century, British authors wrote convoluted sentences. William Faulkner wrote convoluted sentences. But if kids don’t know the words, they won’t be able to parse the sentences. Q. What incentives can we give young people to encourage reading? A. I don’t want to get too much into external rewards. What we want is the internal satisfaction that comes from knowing that you know something. As important, that you know how to know. That, to me, is one of the proficiencies of the digital age. Q. Many parents want their kids to read more. How do they get their reluctant readers started? A. We know from research that what kids do over the summer has a tremendous influence on the size of the achievement gap between lower- and middle-income kids. The booklist on the Scholastic Summer Challenge site is one way to give children an example of the breadth of reading that’s available. The SummerReads™ selections at TextProject also give kids an opportunity to explore various aspects of the season—including heat waves, thunderstorms, strawberries, and the history of flip-flops. The biggest piece of advice I have for families is to make visits to the library part of your summer ritual. The library is free. The Internet has information too, but it’s easier to go to a library and see curated, vetted collections. Think about ways that children can develop an interest or a passion in something so that they’ll want to read more. How do skateboarders figure out new moves? What are the physics of some of those moves? There are websites and books by experts. When you read deeply on a topic, you start to realize the power of literacy and the power of the written word. Talking about books with children can also go a long way. Kids love to share information that they’ve gained from their reading. Such conversations show them that books are a way of sharing knowledge and communicating. Talk with kids about their reading goals—and keep track of how they’re achieving them. Q. Summer is a time for fun. Shouldn’t reading be fun? A. Absolutely. These days, I talk about something called “unhomework.” It’s the notion that what you read at home over the summer doesn’t have to be something you would read in school. If you want to learn about Greek myths, say, you don’t have to read the Iliad, or the children’s version. You can read a series about heroes. Even with a popular book, you’re building vocabulary and improving your reading skills. You’re also seeing that reading can be really enjoyable. Image via sowmya-nagesh