Illiteracy is a huge problem in the United States. According to a study released last year by the U.S. Department of Education, 32 million adults (that's 14 percent of the population) in our country cannot read. 21 percent of our adults read below a fifth grade level. And 19 percent of high school graduates (That's GRADUATES, people. These people actually hold a diploma, which is generally considered a symbol of the most basic of educations, but cannot read.
And the rates of illiteracy haven't improved in ten years, in spite of all of the standardized testing and incentives for teacher effectiveness and No Child Left Behind and now Common Core.
But even more frightening than the numbers of adults in our country that struggle to read is the numbers of people who can read but choose not to.
"Alliteracy" is the label given to the growing epidemic of general disinterest in reading. Unlike illiteracy, alliteracy effects those who possess the ability to read, but are completely and utterly uninterested in doing so
But people aren't born with a disdain for the written word. Most children are intrigued with books, maybe even fascinated. But somewhere in the course of growing up these children were pushed away from the pleasure of reading.
How do you make a person hate reading? Here are a few proven ways to drain any joy out of the experience.
1. Dull textbooks and programmed reading instruction. Read the paragraph and answer the questions. Rinse and repeat ad nauseum. It's great practice for test-taking. It supports the publishers' bottom lines. And it makes the schools feel like they are serious about improving reading scores...and in turn creating job-ready graduates...which they aren't. And it makes reading horribly dull. It limits subject matter and doesn't inspire deeper or creative ways of thinking.
2. Standardized testing. Feed a kid a steady diet of dull comprehension passages, just as practice for passing "the test"... because that's what's important, right? Test scores? In fact let's make sure we are "teaching to the test" at all times, leaving out anything that might randomly interest the student. No superfluous learning. No learning just because you are interested in it...or, heaven forbid, enjoy it. That's not important. Test scores are important! The quality of human being the student becomes is irrelevant. Just so long as they can pad the school's test scores, therefore proving the effectiveness of the "quality" education they are providing.
In fact, let's spend entire class periods devoted to teaching test-taking strategies. Students only need to know how to pass the test. No real connections to the content of the text need to be made. No time for sharing ideas. No time for reflection. No time for applying new knowledge. No time for reflection or absorption. Just circle A, B, or C, and move along to the next meaningless task. Once reading becomes a skill to be assessed and quantified and charted and analyzed, it loses it's personal and human qualities...and especially the magical nature that reading has when done just for sheer pleasure. The system is far more concerned with whether kids can read, than with whether they actually do (Possibly because that is harder to assess and chart and analyze).
3. Assign reading assignments and quizzes and essays designed to bring out the points that YOU think the student should know. Make sure they view literature through your values and life experience, instead of filtering it through their own thoughts and values and reality. Make sure there is only one right answer to those questions and essays. And make sure you never give the reader the opportunity to say what they really think about the book.
4. Make reading a chore. One great way is reading logs. Make them write down how much time they spent reading along with a meaningless synopsis of what they read. Another great way to make reading a chore is vocabulary lists. Fill their days with busy work involving words that have no meaning outside of their context. It is a common practice to have a student stop what they are reading if they come across a word they do not understand. Encourage them to open a dictionary to look it up (Maybe even copy it down and identify the part of speech and language origin and then write an original sentence using the word). That's just stupid! As an adult who loves reading and has a fairly impressive vocabulary (because of reading, I might add), I NEVER drop what I'm reading to look up a word...and I'm not sure I ever have outside of being forced to do so in the classroom. It sucks! It interrupts the flow of the plot and makes reading a burden and a trial. I developed (and am still developing) my vocabulary by reading. A lot. I meet the words over and over again in my reading until they become like friends. And by meeting them again and again in context...they make sense. No dictionary needed.
5. Make them read aloud in front of other people. Nothing can make a child hate reading more than embarrassment, so make reading a constant source of possible failure and public humiliation. Have kids read aloud in front of one another, even though the reading levels may be vastly different. And go ahead and make the slow readers or the self-conscious readers or the introverts read publicly while the confident and advanced readers listen. Go ahead. Let those children fumble over words or drag on slowly while the other children giggle or lose interest or make faces. Go ahead and make those tentative readers feel foolish and stupid and ashamed.
To quote Mark Twain again, "If a cat sits on a hot stove, that cat won't sit on a hot stove again. That cat won't sit on a cold stove either. That cat just don't like stoves." Make reading a painful and disturbing experience for someone, and they are going to avoid it for the rest of their lives.
If I really let the conspiracy theorist in me run wild, I would suggest that the system doesn't even want to create readers. In fact, that inner conspiracy theorist might even postulate that the system wants to DISCOURAGE reading. Perhaps because avid readers are exposed to a boundless source of differing thoughts and opinions, and they are more empathetic and better critical thinkers. They ponder and question and dig deeper. What could be a bigger threat to "the system" than people who actually think...not just regurgitate the thought patterns the system prescribes?
While I stand by the belief that the vast majority of teachers are wonderful people and that they pursued careers in education for all kinds of noble and honorable reasons, the truth is that they are just cogs in a very broken system. Our system of education has turned into a barrage of stress and test results...a place where real learning (the valuable life-lessons kind of useful and powerful learning) is devalued.
So what is the answer? It's probably not an easy one, but we could start with just letting them read...whatever they want. Without a thought to how it affects test scores or graduation rates or anything else that can be measured.
Because the real value of things can't be charted and analyzed and evaluated. It's that way in life and it's that way in learning, too.
Because...well...life is learning...