Reading: a neglected bliss

Reading to children, as Gov. Pat McCrory is shown doing, can help boost their love for reading.
Reading to children, as Gov. Pat McCrory is shown doing, can help boost their love for reading. ANDREW DUNN -

Years ago when Suzanne Jones was the media specialist at my high school, she introduced me to the work of Jim Trelease.

Best-known as an advocate for reading aloud to children, Trelease is also an advocate for giving children uninterrupted time to read on their own.

This sustained silent reading, or SSR, was a practice Suzanne encouraged me to try in my classes. I limited the SSR time to 10 minutes, set a timer, and read when my students did.

I’ve never looked back. I haven’t tracked reading scores or gathered any formal data, but I can see that the vast majority of students enjoy reading this way – and getting reluctant students to enjoy reading goes a long way to making them more successful in school.

Not every one, of course. I always have one or two students whose gaze rests on the same page of text for days. These tend to be students who struggle with reading, and for them, I imagine that ten minutes of reading is what ten minutes of calculus would feel like to me.

At the opposite extreme are the students who become voracious readers. My class has a standing time to check out books from our school library each Monday, but as the semester proceeds, more and more students rush into class each day begging to return the book they finished the night before so they can check out another one.

In between those extremes are the rest of my students, most of whom are reading by the time the tardy bell rings. Without a doubt, they are reading much more than they would without that gentle coercion.

This January, Scholastic, Inc., the publishing company, and YouGov, their research consultants, released the 2015 Kid and Family Reading Report that reflects my observations over the years. First the bad news: the amount of time students read is declining.

According to the survey by Scholastic, children ages 6--11 who read for pleasure five to seven days a week read 43.4 books annually. Infrequent readers read half that, or 21.1 books a year.

Frequent readers ages 12-17 aren’t much different from their younger counterparts, averaging 39.6 books a year. However, children this age who are infrequent readers are very infrequent, finishing only 4.7 books a year.

In an interview with NPR, Jim Steyer of Common Sense Media said that almost half of today’s 17-year-olds read for pleasure only once or twice a year.

Ironically, the majority of parents and children both said that being able to read well is a child’s most important skill. Yet as they age, children read less – partly because they spend their time using their smartphones and tablets, playing sports, doing homework and watching TV.

Now for the good news. Half of the children who have independent reading time at school rank that as their favorite activity and wish they had more time to read. Parents who read to their children, who bring books into the home, who set aside a specific time for their children to read, and who model reading are promoting literacy in ways that work.

As a teacher at a high poverty school, I was particularly interested in the findings about the reading habits of poor children. Sixty-one percent of low-income children reported that most of their reading for pleasure happens only at school, as opposed to 32 percent of wealthier children. That’s not surprising, given the lack of resources that challenges poor families.

That’s also a reminder that giving my students time to read books of their choosing is not a frill but an essential part of their education.

Recently my students read accounts by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, former slaves who learned to read when laws made doing so a risky venture. My students were quick to see the practical aspects of reading and the reasons teaching slaves was illegal – literate slaves could read maps and road signs and escape more easily; they could, as Douglass recounted, find great comfort in published accounts of the abolitionists; and they could write eloquently about the injustices they suffered. Both Douglass and Jacobs were emphatic that their ability to read was key to their liberation.

But reading in and of itself is also liberating – a way out of our own heads into the minds of others. Through reading we can time travel into the past or imagine the future, learn from thinkers long dead or learn about current events online now. Getting books into the hands of kids – and making sure they have time to read them – is an easy way to set them free.

Kay McSpadden is a high school English teacher in York, S.C. Email: