Educators need to urge reading for fun
Arizona Republic
Feb. 10, 2008

Arizona Republic, The (Phoenix, AZ) - February 10, 2008
Author: Maurice Wolfthal, Special for The Republic
Buried on Page A38 of the Dec. 9 The Arizona Republic was a tiny article, "Fewer and Fewer in U.S. Read for Fun." But it reported a major, national, long-range study by the National Endowment for the Arts, which revealed that interest in reading is in steep decline, paralleling a decline in reading ability starting in the middle school years. This was not news to me, having been a reading teacher and reading specialist for many years. But it should have been Page One news, and it should have been required reading for educators. A few years ago, when I became the new librarian at a high school south of Phoenix, I wanted to get some sense of the reading interests of the students. So I distributed a voluntary, anonymous survey to our students in Grades 9 through 12. I asked two questions: Is there a book that you have read on your own that you would recommend to others? And if so, which book was it?

I specified that the students should not write their names on the survey, and that they should answer honestly. Of about 150 students who responded, only 17 could recommend such a book. And of those who did, many had to think back several years to their days in elementary school, naming such books as Gary Paulsen's Hatchet and Beverly Cleary's Ramona the Pest.

There are many reasons why few children read for pleasure. Here is a list of factors that educators most commonly invoke: poor near vision; dyslexia; second-language difficulties; access to television, videos, computer games and other electronic entertainments; parents who are themselves illiterate; parents who do not have the time to take their children to the public library; parents who do not have the money to take their children to bookstores.

But what you will never hear is the part that the educational establishment itself has played in the decline in reading . Middle-school and high-school teachers are more and more compelled to teach a narrowly-prescribed curriculum, often erroneously called "best practices," which does not encourage children to read books on their own level, independently, and at their own pace during the school day. Language-arts time is devoted strictly to whole-class lessons on literary analysis, vocabulary lists, exercises on grammar, worksheets on usage, phonics drills, suffixes and prefixes, and, of course, practice for whatever standardized test is currenly in vogue. None of this, unfortunately, has any demonstrable impact on reading ability.

Yet there is a wealth of research indicating that independent reading is the single most important factor in raising reading ability beyond the third-grade level. Nevertheless it is clear that it is in part the fault of our schools that most of our children do not consider reading an important or pleasurable part of their lives. This state of affairs is all the more ironic when one considers that school districts commonly proclaim that their vision and mission include the nurturing of "lifelong readers" or "lifelong learners."

Maurice Wolfthal has been a teacher and school librarian for 38 years. He can be reached at
Edition: Final Chaser
Section: VALLEY & State
Page: B4
Dateline: AZ
Record Number: pho95397580