Preventing 'Readicide'

April 19, 2009|By Nancy Schnog

While our teenagers have been minting acronyms for the English language (ask your closest-to-kin teen to define "rofl" and "ttyl"), California English educator Kelly Gallagher has taken the world of adult neologisms one step forward with his killer noun: "readicide."

Here's the definition: the systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools. Too often, Mr. Gallagher explains, teachers' efforts to meet test standards churn out students who, overdosed in high school on a narrow diet of required classics and literary analysis, leave English classrooms without an ounce of lasting interest in engaged reading.

Fortunately, the backlash against school-inflicted readicide has arrived. Nationwide, English educators are calling for a renewal of the high school classroom as the leading edge in the formation of lifelong reading habits. As the fall 2008 report from the National Endowment for the Arts illustrates, declining teen reading rates are not preordained. They can be forestalled. What it takes is community members mobilized to support reading initiatives, as well as a keen awareness that teens' leisure options have forever changed the reading equation.

So, here's the plan: Use the English classroom to get students to read more broadly in order to develop reading habits and interests - to create the desire to read. This is the key battle English teachers wage today, especially as kids fall through the laptop looking-glass from grades 7 through 12.

Books will have a better chance if teachers have the courage to revision what happens during the 50 minutes students spend daily in their classrooms. Inside those walls, it's time to embed traditional curricular choices inside a broader "culture of reading."

This phrase came to my attention from a friend in Michigan who described her daughter's back-to-school night this way: "We listened to the ninth-grade English teacher talk about why she has the kids read for pleasure in class. Otherwise, she feels that she stands at the front of the room as the high priestess of literature, explaining how to interpret texts, and at the end of the year kids hate to read. She believes English teachers should create a culture of reading: It doesn't matter what kids read, as long as they're trying new things, sharing what they loved with others, and remaining excited about books."

In this classroom, the great-books-for-everyone philosophy is balanced (not eliminated) by a parallel curriculum that supports teens' tastes and nascent interests - recreational, artistic, vocational or professional. Yes, teachers continue to teach the demanding classics, but they take responsibility, too, for nourishing personal reading habits that expand students' horizons, rendering learning and entertainment.

While traditionalists will utter "dumbing down" at those of us ready to loosen control over reading curricula, a vanguard of 21st-century educators is placing free choice of and immediate access to books closer to the center of literature class. And not, as critics will argue, to indulge teens in a false sense of competence and self-esteem.

Mr. Gallagher calls the combination of choice and access a "book flood": Immerse kids in a culture of reading and their chances of reading a book - and reaching for the next one - improve significantly. What parents need to know is that recreational reading correlates with increased language proficiency, including improved vocabulary skills and reading speed, leading to stronger test scores as well as pleasurable reading experiences.

Flannery O'Connor asserted that when it comes to books, a student's "taste should not be consulted." In these times when the turn-off to reading lies one click away from YouTube, Facebook and hundreds of television channels, we educators would have to have our heads in the sand not to be doing some consulting.

No longer is today's battleground over what books teenagers should read. The real question is whether we can sustain their desire to read at all.

Nancy Schnog teaches English at the McLean School in Potomac and writes frequently about education. Her e-mail is schnog@earthlink.net.

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