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For as long as she can remember, 17-year-old Madison Stokes of Harrisburg, PA has loved to read. When she was pre-kindergarten, she would plow through a succession of children's books.
"They were small books, 5 pages or so," she said. "Every time I would read one through, I would get a tally marker or a sticker and it was, like, I want to get this sticker. I would take my time reading and really try to get it down. That's my youngest memory."
Actually, Madison was first exposed to reading even before she was born. Her mother and father would read stories to her when she was still in the womb, hoping to seed an interest in reading prenatally. To this day, her dad still reads to her and her younger sister, Olivia.
"Every night, my dad reads to us," she recalled. "We're constantly having discussions about the books."
Madison is not just an avid reader. She wrote two children's books when she was still a child.
When I was about 9 years old, I came across a book in the school library called Freddy and the Bean Home News. I can still remember the pleasantly musky smell of the hardback volume. The book was part of a series of children's' books about an anthropomorphic group of farm animals who lived on a farm owned by the Bean family. Freddy, a pig, starts a newspaper for the farm animals. In one illustration, he has perched on his brow one of those green visors that newspaper editors wore in the old days.
Freddy and the Bean Home News changed my life. It instilled in me an early interest in journalism. Years later, I would become a reporter, which would be my career for 40 years. So, thank you, Freddy the Pig.
I was living in Boston in the early 2000s when I signed up to become a Big Brother, a mentor to a young person. I was connected with a 13-year-old boy named Danny. He was an only child who lived with his mother in public housing. On my introductory visit to their home, I noticed that there wasn't a single book visible in their home. There was, however, a giant screen television mounted on the wall in the living room.
Much later, I asked Danny if he liked to read.
He shrugged his shoulders. "I'd rather watch a movie," he said.
It pained me to hear that.
Books opened my eyes to the world and, as I grew up, gave me the first glimpses into my own soul and revealed to me that there were other people who had had some of the same thoughts and dreams I had, had pondered the same questions I was asking, had shared the same insecurities and doubts I was experiencing.
As James Baldwin once said, "You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read."
I came to especially enjoy re-reading some of my favorite books every few years. As I grew up and then grew older, my perspective on them would change. I would find new meanings in familiar passages. It was like finding a hidden treasure.
I read Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison at least seven times. I read The Catcher In The Rye a dozen times. I have read and re-read The Stranger by Albert Camus every few years for decades. Each time, it was a revelation. Victor Frankl's Holocaust memoir, Man's Search For Meaning, rocked me to my core, not just because of the horrors it describes but also for its inspiring story of human resilience and perseverance under some of the most awful conditions a person can endure. I just finished reading His Last Battle: The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt, the story of a sick, dying man clinging desperately to life as he tries to finish his mission of ending the Second World War while trying to build the foundations to avert another.
When I visit the homes of friends, many have few or no books on their bookshelves. I suppose one explanation is that they have turned to e-readers. But I doubt that's all of it. Yes, plenty of people still read. In 2020, book sales in the United States exceeded 750 million, a very healthy 8 percent increase over the previous year. But these figures mask a statistic I found troubling: the persistently high percentage of American children who cannot read at grade level.
Over the past 20-plus years, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the so-called Nation's Report Card, has consistently found that between 30 percent and 40 percent of fourth graders are grade-level proficient readers.* Or, looked at from the other angle, 60 percent to 70 percent cannot read at grade level. There is strong evidence that suggests that if a child struggles to read early on, the consequences can be life-shaping.
In a 2019 Atlantic article entitled At A Loss For Words, journalist Emily Hanford wrote: "When kids struggle to learn how to read, it can lead to a downward spiral in which behavior, vocabulary, knowledge and other cognitive skills are eventually affected by slow reading development. A disproportionate number of poor readers become high school dropouts and end up in the criminal justice system."
“If you can't read in the early grades, your peers notice, your teacher notices, you notice,” said Paul Morgan, a professor at Penn State University who studied risk factors for learning difficulties. "And it really starts to have negative consequences on your social emotional development and your behavior.
It's probably no surprise that there's evidence that young children's reading skills were adversely affected by the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, when in-person schooling was largely replaced by "school by Zoom." Researchers at Stanford University's Graduate School of Education looked at results from an assessment given nationally to first- to fourth-graders. Professor Ben Domingue, who authored the Stanford study said, "It seems that these students, in general, didn't develop any reading skills during the spring -- growth stalled when schooling was interrupted."
The students regained some of that lost ground in the fall of 2020 when many returned to classrooms, but second- and third-graders, who were the most affected, remain 30 percent behind where they would be expected to be in oral reading fluency, which is the ability to quickly and accurately read aloud.
I will confess to being ill-equipped to weigh in on the many debates about how best to teach reading. But, in my research, I found a number of theories that were intriguing.
There is a school of thought that the emphasis on reading (and math) at the lowest grades delays attention to subjects such as history and science. Without that base of factual knowledge, it can make it harder for a child to comprehend what he or she reads. A University of Virginia psychology professor named Daniel Willingham, among others, says many children need at least some background knowledge to understand what they are reading, not just to be able to read the words.
"It's mostly a myth that you can develop critical thinking skills without a base of factual knowledge," he said. "Reasoning, logic-- all of those are interwoven with, and dependent upon, knowing facts. The more factual knowledge you have, the more the ability the brain will have to do that higher-level thinking."
Francisco, a 7-year-old boy who I tutor, once showed me a passage he had been assigned to read and answer questions about for his second grade class. The text was about the Eurostar train that runs between Paris and London crossing the English Channel via a tunnel. He knew almost all of the individual words in the passage, but, as a child whose whole world was his East Harlem neighborhood -- he'd never even been on the New York City subway -- he was baffled by the content. He had no idea what Eurostar was, or a high-speed train, and had ever heard of Paris or London.
According to another theory, it's more effective to have struggling readers tackle material at their grade level rather than at their individual reading level. That struck me as counterintuitive. Shouldn't the child's reading skills be brought up before giving them texts that are supposedly beyond their level? Proponents of this theory say children, even those who have difficulty reading, learn better by being challenged than by reading at their own level.
"Giving children easier texts when they're weaker readers services to deny them the very language and information they need to catch up and move on," said cognitive and developmental psychologist Marilyn Jager Adams of Brown University.
One other idea I found fascinating was that giving children easier access to reading material can influence them to read more.
In The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads, Willingham tells the story of a high school teacher who told his students about a book, Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond. Some of the students expressed interest in it, but when he checked the school library the next day, neither of the two copies of the book had been checked out. So, the teacher took out the two copies and brought them to class.
"(He) asked if anyone was interested in reading this book he had mentioned," wrote Willingham. "Five students raised their hands and he gave the copies to the two most enthusiastic students. So five students were ready to give the book a try if someone put it in their hands, but going to the school library to find it seemed like too much trouble. The library was a 30-second walk from his classroom."
Willingham continued, "The implication of these examples is that books should not just be available, but virtually falling into children's laps, or at least, visible in as many locations as possible: in the classroom, in every room in the house, in the car and so one."
But even then, he says, reading is just one choice for children who nowadays have many other options, including watching television, streaming videos or gaming.
"If a child must like reading most from available alternatives," Willingham wrote, "parents can control the other alternatives, that is, make reading the most appealing choice around by restricting access to other activities."
A 6th grade teacher at a suburban Connecticut public school told me that at her school students get extra credit just for having a book in their possession.
"You don't have read it, you don't have to know what the book is," she said. "It could be any book. It's just patterning and conditioning. Then, (they) see other kids are actually reading books. Would they rather be playing video games? Yes. But they can't carry a video game around with them.”
But these ideas place the burden on teachers and schools. Willingham argues that parents should not leave it to teachers to promote reading to their kids.
"If you want your child to value reading, schools can help. but you, the parent, have the greater influence and bear the greater responsibility," he said. "You can't just talk about what a great idea reading is. Your child needs to observe that reading matters to you, that you live like a reader."
As a mere civilian, I am in favor of whatever works because there is so much at stake. Even among reading proficient children, surveys have found that fewer and fewer kids read just for pleasure. That is a dismaying trend. Somewhere on a library shelf, there's a Freddy And The Bean Home News waiting to be discovered by a child, to fire his or her imagination, and just maybe change the course of that child's life.
* The figure for 2019 was 34% of fourth graders were reading at grade level