Last week at the AASL Reading and the Elementary School Library Media Specialist conference we talked a lot about how to encourage and support classroom reading programs. We shared about our programs, book talks, displays and activities to promote books from our libraries. We talked about No Child Left Behind and how testing was driving so many reading programs and eliminating the necessary time slots for "free reading", pleasure reading and Sustained Silent Reading during the school day.
I have a background in teaching reading and writing. I started out teaching English as a Second Language with adult teachers. I've taught students ages from Senior Citizens, college age, first grade, kindergarten and preschooler. Most of the reading teaching strategies we discussed I am already familiar with and have some experience using so there wasn't much that was new to me in this conference, but I was struck by a few things that we discussed.
One thing that came up over and over again was the connection between the growth of reading comprehension, vocabulary development, school success and the sheer volume of pleasure reading children partake in by their own selection. In the reading packet we were given Dr. John Shefelbine, in an article titled "Reading: Voluminously and Voluntarily" (Scholastic Library Publishing) says, "One of the strongest predictors of reading comprehension in general and vocabulary development in particular is the amount of time students spend reading to themselves." He continues later in the article, "Pleasure reading encourages the development of reading as a life-long habit and pastime while strengthening both academic language and fluency."
Reading for pleasure in open free time is not just for fun. It's how lifelong readers develop. It is essential. Not many of the studies referenced in NCLB legislation mention that, but more and more researchers are bringing it up. Kids can and should read above and below their "level" in a wide variety of materials just because it interests them.
Their sponge-like brains soak up the vocabulary and background knowledge of the world. They make connections, find patterns, add facts and illustrations and synthesis it all to build the scaffold that continual learning requires. One of the precious gifts that libraries give is exactly this free time to browse. No agenda, no evaluation, no rubric to measure what they've done or learned or accomplished. Just text and comfy chairs and knowledgeable, helpful librarian guides.
In our meetings last Friday many of us elementary school librarians nodded in agreement when stories were shared about students not having time to read materials of their own choice because the reading programs and academic subjects demanded all their time. We laughed together when someone complained that the Captain Underpants books were the ones the kids begged for and which were almost never on the shelves. Many of us found that the graphic novels and so called "junk" books are the ones the kids snatch up eagerly when they do have a choice about their reading material. We talked about the kind of books boys want to read and how to nurture that. We talked about how to keep a balanced collection so that all different levels of taste and ability are served and supplied.
I feel fortunate in my independent school because the teachers are not constrained by the mandated testing of NCLB. We plan and implement our own curriculum and are free to develop programs based on best practices taught by educators like Lucy Calkins and Nancy Atwell. Most of the reading texts recommended at the conference are the ones our teachers know and love. I have no complaints. In my library I can hand out the best books and the most desired books to all kinds of readers. I wish it were true for every school library.
What is it like in your library? Is there time in your kid's schedules to browse? To read what truly interests them? To have fun with it? What are they asking for and how often can you supply it?