Free Reading Redux

A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.

Franz Kafka, Letter to Oskar Pollak 1904

Paul Horton at Anthony Cody’s blog has offered a third installment of his defense of reading, recommending:

David Mikics, a Professor of English at the University of Houston, has recently written a very good book on this issue, Slow Reading in a Hurried Age (2013).

As reading and English teachers grapple with teaching literacy to prepare students for PARCC tests across the country, they should read this book very slowly to attempt to maintain a semblance of sanity: Slow Reading in a Hurried Age describes what you know you should be doing and want to do in your classes: reading to open minds rather than prescribed literacy drills that closes them.

Horton’s defense speaks to two important points I want to add here.

First, over 31 years as a teacher primarily concerned with literacy, I can attest that one of the most powerful forces that stands between students and a life-long love of reading is formal schooling.

For example, virtually all children (who are healthy, safe, and well fed) are eager and excited about both learning to read and reading. By 9th or 10th grade, however, a solid majority of students respond to reading somewhere between ambivalence and dread.

What do all those students have in common? Years of formal schooling in which their reading has overwhelmingly been assigned and then the purpose of text has almost exclusively been reduced to mining those assigned texts for the information teachers or test creators want those students to identify (up next, the hell that will be “close reading”—or “how to destroy the love of reading in one easy step”).

Teaching at the university level and working closely with English majors have presented me with another powerful phenomenon: College students who lament that their formal education keeps them from pleasure reading and who feel relief and excitement at the possibility of returning to reading by choice once they graduate.

Second, Horton’s series on reading speaks to the work of Lou LaBrant, who spent most of her 65 years as a formal educator calling for free reading—including her foundational “The Content of a Free Reading Program” (1937).

And thus, to the term “free reading.”

Directly, advocacy for free reading is an evidence-based argument that reading is essential for human agency and empowerment, but the quest for reading among the young must be couched in recognizing the tension between the ability to read (so-called reading skills such as decoding, comprehension, etc.) and the proclivity to read (appreciating the value of reading as well as simply wanting to read).

If teaching children to read makes them non-readers, what’s is the point?

That leads to the secondary implication of the term “free reading”—we must find ways in which to free reading from the historical and current policies and practices that destroy the love of reading all children need and deserve.

And here is what we know (from the earliest years of LaBrant’s work to the continued scholarship and advocacy of Stephen Krashen):

  • Choice is one of the most powerful conditions for all literacy growth, especially when students are allowed choice in the context of the guidance of expert readers and writers (including but not exclusively teachers).
  • Access to books and texts is central to literacy development, especially abundant access to texts in the home and in schools (such as well-funded libraries with professional librarians).

The ways in which many of us come to love reading have been identified and confirmed again and again by teachers and researchers, but also among writers. Read Neil Gaiman on libraries and books, or Ray Bradbury, or Walter Dean Myers.

That list, in fact, is nearly endless, but we fail to listen to teachers, researchers, writers, and worst of all, students.

There is a wonderful and powerfully subtle remembrance in Lousie DeSalvo’s Vertigo in which she shares a moment from her high school experience. DeSalvo’s physics teacher confronts the young Louise about her ignoring his lectures by reading novels not-so-covertly in the back of room (otherwise, Louise notes that she is a good student in that class).

Mr. Horton, the teacher, does not respond in the way we expect. He takes her book, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, in his hand and then offers her a deal: He wants her to stop ignoring his lectures, but he offers to read the books she is reading and then talking with her about them (pp. 168-169).

For me, this teacher asks that DeSalvo respect the course by acknowledging his respect for those things that matter to her. It is an elegant and gracious compromise found all too rarely in schools.

If we are to take seriously the value in reading, as Horton does, we must come to terms with the paradox: Free reading is the path to free reading from the failures of demanding and teaching reading in our schools.

In 1937, LaBrant reached a conclusion that holds true today:

The theory that in a free or extensive reading program designed to utilize interest and to serve individual needs there will be fruitless reading of light fiction gains no evidence from this study. The report does, however, point to the possibility that the adolescent has much greater power to read and to think intelligently about reading than the results of our conventional program have led us to believe. (p. 34)

DeSalvo’s physics teacher ends his deal offer by noting that Louise has the key quality needed for a teacher: “‘A passionate interest in your subject'” (p. 169).

Moments such as this must become the norm of schooling, not the rare recollection found in a memoir—a memoir, by the way, that is a beautiful and incisive read, an “axe for the frozen sea within us.”

For Further Reading

How an economics professor taught me a life-changing lesson — in literature

8 comments

  1. Pingback: Free Reading Redux – @ THE CHALK FACE
  2. Jeff Nguyen

    Close reading is being pushed on K-2 students in my state where the CC rollout started in the primary grades and filtered upwards. So, students who are still learning to read for the most part are being asked to decontextualize texts to make it as irrelevant and meaningless as possible. The hits keep on coming.

    • Clisby

      That would have driven me to private school or homeschooling. Fortunately, my son, who didn’t really *get* reading until he was in the 2nd grade, was in a public Montessori school, where his teacher recognized he was doing just fine. In my own experience (I’m 60) – when I entered first grade, in a Catholic school, the teachers did not expect incoming first-graders to know even one letter of the alphabet. Some, did, some didn’t. I was the only one in my first grade class who could read, and apparently I learned it on my own from my parents’ reading to me. My first-grade teacher sent me to read with the 2nd-graders. If we returned to that expectation, we could save a whole lot of time and angst.

  3. Pingback: Educational Policy Information
  4. Pingback: Paul L. Thomas: Free Reading Redux | La Pluma Poderosa
  5. Marilyn J. Hollman

    G. Robert Carlsen’s work is crucial to this notion, also. Bruce Appleby and I both studied with him and did research and writing about “free reading.”

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