Sunday, March 17, 2013

Why Do Children Increasingly Seem to Hate Reading?

When I was a child, we didn't have cable. That meant on hot summer afternoons when it was too hot to go outside, I would read. My earliest memories are of checking out stacks of books from the weekly Bookmobile that subbed for a library back when north Dallas was the edge of Dallas proper. I was so excited when the Fretz Park Library opened that I went the first day and was one of the first kids to check out a book. I was such a voracious reader that when bored I would read volumes from our set of World Book Encyclopedias or back issues National Geographic that my parents kept. So I read through the wonders of the world, the obscure aspects of our society. I particularly liked the I-J volume for oddities. In junior high I was shy and would check out a book every morning before school, read it during free time at the end of class, at lunch, after school and late at night to finish and begin the cycle over again the next day.

I don't understand it when someone says they hate to read. That's like saying you hate to eat or hate to breathe to me. I get it that some people have reading problems, but what I am seeing is an increasing number of students who seem inordinately proud of their illiteracy. I have heard high school seniors brag that they've never been in our school's media center, which is ironic since it not only has books, but high speed computers AND A COFFEE BAR....but I digress.

Why do our kids grow up hating to read almost from day one? Let's take the very few kids who are truly dyslexic out of the mix-their case is more involved with the way their brains work and the tracking of information. But more and more average kids who should be able to read cannot or will not. I don't say that lightly.

Let's go back a few years to the 1950's. My mother was teaching in a low income district in west Texas in what was known as the Bracero Program. Her second graders ranged in age from seven to eleven. She taught them basic phonics and reading using low tech methods such as flashcards and drills. Being bilingual, she was able to help the Spanish speaking student acquire English reading and writing skills without the imposition of Federal programs or even Federal aid.

Move forward to the late 1980's and kids are being still being taught using basic phonics and drill. My two oldest learned to read under this system and both read and write well. But in the late 80's-90's a new concept came out. Rather than teaching using low tech methods, suddenly high tech computer programs that mimicked the same procedure as low tech flashcards. So the information wasn't different, just the delivery. As time progressed, suddenly education entities felt there was a need to make learning "entertaining." So instead of dry flashcards, gimmicky games were employed which helped somewhat with imparting knowledge, but kids continued to struggle with reading and writing. During this same time, cursive writing was removed from many school curricula. While some may think this is a picky observation, cursive writing provides a crucial link for eye hand coordination that also creates neural pathways that provide control. Because by this point so many of students were struggling just to decipher written words, rather than teach better, programs were simply eliminated.

Something had to fill the gap.So suddenly all the education publishing houses began cranking out educational computer programs. They would sell districts, to the tune of millions of dollars, on these programs based on little more than the piecrust promises of improved test scores. We were in the era of high stakes testing. Scores meant more than actual learning and data trumped all. So little kids were placed in front of computers as a replacement for print on paper learning.

Do you know when most parents of young children find out their children need glasses? It's usually somewhere in the first or second grade. Boys generally don't have tracking abilities until they are nearly seven. That's why it was illegal in the bad old days of the USSR to teach any child to read until they were seven, but I digress. That being the case, many children right now go through years of eye strain which is exacerbated by the flickering light of a computer image. Kids do not know what eyestrain might be. All they know is that when they read on the computer, their heads hurt. Reading hurts. It's a classic case of conditioning in the best Pavlov tradition.

Now what I've just written is all conjecture. If I had a billion dollars, I would want to research this. For school districts I can see the attraction of higher scores and not having to warehouse and inventory and purchase textbooks. But as we go bravely into this new world of education where student pay more attention to their cell phones and Ipads than what is going on in the classroom, I have to wonder if this is wise. Or maybe even if it is deliberate.

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