“We are making no progress at all in teaching children to read in the United States….But our failure is less one of education policy, than the simple fact that we are wedded to a demonstrably flawed model of how to teach children to read. ”

Thus begins an excellent column by E.D. Hirsch in the Washington Post. Reader beware, though; he’s jam-packed this article with more than the usual one-liners about the dire state of our education system. He’s actually got some useful info in here.

He says it best so I encourage you to take the time to read his thoughts, but here’s a few of his main points:

Language mastery (of which reading is just one piece) requires broad reading. Translated that means reading more than just fiction, poetry, and “literary stuff.”

Gaps in reading are often actually  gaps in knowledge.

Reading is not a purely transferable skill. It is “domain specific.” Just because I can do well on a “find the main idea” reading quizzy doesn’t mean I can read an op-ed piece about the Tea Party, an excerpt from Kant, or one of Feynman’s books about the beauty of physics.

But correcting our literacy instruction problems is not simply a matter of adding more non-fiction readings to the quizzy practice books. It’s an approach and attitude that Hirsch leaves at the door of “curriculum coherence.” While not disagreeing with that, I bring it to the door of learning. Are we designing educational systems that allow for and even encourage learning–or are we simply going through the motions of teaching?

What can we as parents and librarians do in the meantime?

  • When’s the last time you and your child browsed the non-fiction section of the library? There are some amazingly well-written, well-photographed kids’ books on a fascinating array of topics just waiting for you over there. These non-fiction books are not your “school report” type books that you remember. These are more like in-depth, glossy magazines, enjoyable to read, interesting to look at, exciting to discuss.
  • Continue to read aloud with your children during the elementary years–and include some non-fiction. Read and talk about it together. Make it a shared experience, not a school lesson.
  • Keep a stack of these books around the house. At least three or four times a week, have a “turn off the screens” time for 15-30 minutes when everyone in the house finds something to read (including you). Watch how these books start getting picked up.
  • Your library doesn’t seem to have these kinds of books? Well, find a librarian and ask for them! If you are a librarian, get them! We can’t make this kind of shift happen for students if the materials are not available.
  • I believe this is one reason homeschoolers typically do so well. This kind of reading is encouraged and is a core of most of their school days. Based on informal observations, we already have a population in which we can see this “method” working and working well.
  • Finally, added bonus? Boys are more often interested in this kind of reading. 🙂

Read On!