Friday, January 2, 2009

What's the deal with reading?

In Parentonomics, I rant about reading and the attention it is given at pre-school. This is not to say that I'm against it. It just seems to be a source of undue pressure for 5 and 6 year olds.

So it was with some joy that I began to read today's article in Slate entitled "Reading isn't fundamental." The article starts with a discussion of how parents feel when they observe their child (not) reading while others appear to be. I remember feeling that with Child No.1. I would observe a class-mate who, say, read a description "the sky is blue" and pointed out that that day the sky was, in fact, not blue but grey. This required reading the description and relating it to the world. Of course, by the time I got home this feat was translated to "did you know that so and so can read the weather forecast in the newspaper?" Let's face it, that was a tad exaggerated but the cause of it was concern.

Turns out that this happens all of the time. When Child No.1 was 4, she caused another parent to think that she could read perfectly (and by implication their child was inadequate) but 'reading' the whole of The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. (I can imagine the translated version of that feat: "did you know that Gans kid is reading not just books but entire series of them?") Turns out that she had done no such thing. My daughter had been read that book so many times that she knew it off by heart! Suffice it to say, the other parent could not imagine that was the case given that the book is 40 some pages (although we could easily imagine it given how many millions of times we had read it) and it was only years later that the myth was dispelled.

But as the Slate article rightly points out, such feats are mythical and do not necessarily relate to real success in future life. (Oral skills for one seem more important). No kid is going to be reading Shakespeare by 7 so we can all just chill. Indeed, I can atest that early reading does not necessarily translate into some great love of books. Child No.2 was reading before he turned 5 (mostly self-taught). However, to this day, he shys away from books without pictures. He doesn't like them. He read to make sense of the pictures not for information per se. Even now as I read A Series of Unfortunate Events to the two eldest every night (something we are doing because I want to read them as much as the kids want to listen), he is constantly hopping up to look at the long picture on the cover. The words are not enough.

The Slate articles goes on:
... let's take a moment to recognize that compared with the development of oral language, the acquisition of reading is unnatural. Speech and the ability to understand speech can be considered the result of a natural process in the sense that the requisite skills emerge without formal training. ... Before children can speak fluently, they move from sounds to words, words to phrases, and so on, acquiring their growing expertise from exposure to the speech around them. They then make efforts to speak, with little formal guidance. By contrast, children must be taught to read.
So one would think that the Slate article might be a call for rationality and an alleviation of blame. No such luck. Right away it falls into a standard trap: children learn to read at different rates (a good true fact) and if parents are worried here is a thousand things you can do to overcome it (a bad conclusion). It is precisely the same talk we had from teachers at our kids' school: they learn at different rates (i.e., if your kid is not reading it is not our fault) but you should be reading to them at home (i.e., you probably aren't doing enough so it is your fault).

So the article moves into a raft of advice of what parents should be doing. For example, start young:
With infants, talk to the child and encourage him to make a range of talklike sounds. Begin reading to the child, and keep books around, including some within the child's reach. Do what you can to make reading fun, enjoyable, peaceful, and engaging, setting the stage for what comes next at the toddler level. You are building command of sounds, love of reading, and an appreciation of the value and importance of books.
What?? They just explained how oral communication was important and reading was an unnatural activity. Now they are saying through books all around the place to prep your toddler for reading action.

Come on. Since when does reading equate to 'love of books'? And since when is a love of books a pre-requisite to reading? I don't know about you but throughout my life most of my reading is non-book related. I reckon that if I never read another book tomorrow the amount of reading (and understanding what I read) would hardly change. Why is it the case that we think that books will hold some magical power over our children and their future success?

The issue is not 'love of books' but 'love of communication' and reading is just a part of that. You need to read to communicate in society and that is the primary consideration. Whether you appreciate or even like literature is surely second or worse. And to think that we are teaching our children to read so that they can immerse themselves in books is completely out of place with how important reading actually is for other things. Moreover, appreciating books is not a pre-requisite to writing clearly or communicating to others.

My point here is that to structure our curriculum and pressures on parents around reading books is misplaced. We need to concentration on communication and its elements. To focus on reading is to focus on an arbitrary benchmark; something I think parents need to resist.