Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The importance of independent reading choices

Many parents feel concern over the reading choices their children make. However, independent reading - reading purely for the joy of it - is a crucial part of a child's overall academic development. Intuitively, I believe we all know that children (and adults!) are more likely to find pleasure in reading if they are able to choose the books that speak to them. Fortunately, there is sound evidence showing that letting children read what they like is beneficial.

I highly encourage parents and children to keep reading logs. These can be in a notebook or online, using a site such as Goodreads or Library Thing, or even in a simple Excel spreadsheet. If you track your reading over time, you will likely notice it going in waves as your interests change. Perhaps you'll go through a phase of Civil War fiction followed by books that help you plan your next summer vacation followed by contemporary Irish fiction followed by spy thrillers.

Similarly your child may be in the midst of a reading phase you don't particularly like right now - but if you keep track, odds are it will soon be succeeded by another and then yet another... the main thing is to keep alive that passion and excitement about reading in whatever form it takes!The latest issue of Knowledge Quest, the journal of the American Association of School Librarians has an article called “Anything but Reading” by Stephen Krashen (professor emeritus from the University of Southern California in linguistics & education). He is a well-known advocate for children and reading. This article surveys 19 controlled academic studies of children and reading. The following quotes summarize it well:

“[The] studies show that those who read more read better. They also write better, spell better, have larger vocabularies and have better control of complex grammatical constructions.”

“The research literature also contains a number of case histories, cases in which self-selected voluntary reading resulting in unmistakable improvement in reading and other aspects of literacy. These studies are ‘scientific’ in that there was no other possible source of the improvement other than reading.”

“Even more convincing are experimental studies in which students who do self-selected reading for a given amount of time are compared to students who devote the same amount of time to ‘regular’ instruction. Self-selected reading has been a consistent winner in these studies…”

“In all studies time was set aside for self-selected reading, and readers were compared to similar students who did not have reading time included as part of their English program… [W]ithout exception, the readers did better than those in the comparison group.”

“[A]vailability of a school library is a very strong predictor of reading scores – nearly as strong as the effect of poverty…” [Laura’s note: the school library is a place where children have a source of books they can self-select from!]

“[T]he consistent winner in all the studies discussed here is self-selected reading. Nevertheless, self-selected reading is still a hard sell. People seem to be attracted to nearly every possible means of improving reading ability other than the most obvious…”

Of course, this is not to say that reading instruction is unnecessary – far from it! Rather, we must not underestimate the crucial importance of allowing children to self-select reading materials to supplement instructional time. Model a wide-ranging love for books and give time for reading prominence in your family's life and everything else will follow.

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