Reading for Pleasure

In my first letter to Minister of Education Adriana LaGrange, I noted that while the draft ELA curriculum claims to deal with the six strands of the language arts, it actually leaves out viewing and representing entirely, with serious implications for children’s development as citizens in a contemporary culture. This time, I want to comment on an equally serious gap.

The draft very notably makes no room whatever for children to pursue the idea of reading for pleasure. It is a striking measure of an extremely sterile approach that the notion of comedy is not introduced until Grade 6. Talk about a child-free zone – have the curriculum drafters (assuming there is more than one person involved) not met Elephant and Piggie by Mo Willems and considered their vital role in creating readers out of very young children?  The idea that humour waits till children are 11 or 12 would itself be comic if it weren’t so sad. It is a metaphor for much that is wrong with this work; the drafters do not seem to be thinking about the values and priorities of real children at all.

Many aspects of this curriculum are similarly sterile. I am not an expert in phonemes and morphemes so I will give that part of the curriculum the benefit of the doubt. What is not in doubt is the woeful absence of support (let alone time!) for reading for pleasure. The capacity to engage in free voluntary reading, simply for the delight of it, is our reward for slogging through the phonemes and the morphemes and learning to decode print. Even in a school less burdened with the hours of memorizing in the daily schedule than this draft curriculum demands, there is not simply time during the school day for children to do enough reading – enough to build up both fluency in decoding and ease of interpretation. There is certainly not time in the school day for children to gain a full sense of the delight of exploring both familiar and new worlds inside the covers of books, or on the screens of tablets and e-readers. Children need generous access to reading materials so they can learn the fine art of choosing a book that will appeal to them, and they need sheltered time for reading, without having to subsequently jump through a set of accountability hoops. By far the best and easiest way to establish enough time for that reading is to let children learn to love reading so that they do it in their own time at home.

The English Language Arts curriculum grants poetry some powers of delight but its approach to prose is itself prosaic, and seems to be designed to snuff out any sparks of interest before they can ignite into the kind of blaze of excitement that causes kids to keep reading. Here is what the Grade 3 draft says about fiction: “Fictional texts are often products of a text creator’s imagination and are not factual.”  And here is what children are expected to do with that pedestrian and uninspiring information:  

  • Differentiate between a variety of fiction sub-forms by content, characters, time, or place.
  • Identify fictional text structures that contribute to organization, clarity, or personal engagement.
  • Identify elements within a variety of fictional texts.
  • Determine if characters in fictional texts are major or minor. 
  • Create imaginative representations or dramatizations of fictional texts that depict understandings of characters, setting, and plot.
  • Describe the narrator’s contribution to a text. 

There is not the slightest hint in this dreary and very old-fashioned list that reading is joyful and fascinating and mind-expanding. Everything about this work is reductive and dull. Even creating imaginative representations is not allowed to be very creative; there is no permission to riff on the original to produce something new; instead, children must depict understanding of story elements. At the age of 8, they are having their reading spirits crushed instead of inspired.

The irony is that pleasure in reading is actually the magic bullet. Children who read for enjoyment not only achieve better results later in school in predictable areas like vocabulary development, they also get better results in mathematics. For further information, look at the huge longitudinal study presented by Sullivan and Brown in 2015. Drawing on a pool of more than three and a half thousand participants who were surveyed and tested at ages 5, 10, and 16, they present an argument that is heavy in statistics and presents extremely clear conclusions. It is not that more able children are more likely to read for pleasure; it is that reading for pleasure makes them more able. “Reading for pleasure is actually linked to increased progress over time” (page 986). They also say, “We would also argue that supporting reading for pleasure among disadvantaged children could potentially provide a powerful tool in closing education attainment gaps” (page 987).

PISA is the Programme for International Student Assessment, run by the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development). Every three years they test samples of 15-year-olds from many countries on their capacities in reading, mathematics, and science; Alberta has always performed extremely well on these tests. They also rotate deeper exploration of one subject area or another; reading was investigated in 2009. The international PISA findings support the observations by Sullivan and Brown. In a report from 2011, PISA says, “On average, students who read daily for enjoyment score the equivalent of one-and-a-half years of schooling better than those who do not,” (https://www.oecd.org/pisa/pisaproducts/pisainfocus/48624701.pdf

Yet everything in this draft seems to conspire to deprive children of the time and the opportunity to develop as voluntary readers: To make their own choices about their reading interests, to follow a favourite author and read everything that person has ever written, to pursue a topic (such as dinosaurs, for example) to the point where they read far above their normal capacity because of the expertise they develop simply for the joy of it. For all the false claims that literature was absent from the previous curriculum, this draft is full of labels for texts (fiction, fact, fable, etc.) but the delights of literature are almost entirely missing, except in terms of poetry. And this problem would be true even if the ELA part of the curriculum were being taught in a vacuum – but of course the children in these classrooms are also going to be swamped with mountains of superficial social studies “facts,” with more labels (not always correct) to interfere with their pleasure in their music and art, and with rigid restriction of intellectual freedom and excitement on all sides.

The overwhelming public outcry about the pernicious impact of this sloppy and counter-productive product should give the government all the feedback it could ever want or need. The speed, spontaneity, and quality of the arguments in the resistance that sprang up the moment this draft appeared speaks well for the success of earlier Alberta curricula in producing an educated and involved citizenry. It is time for the government to acknowledge our profound concerns.

Follow-up notes and links

Inviting children to develop a love for reading is a responsibility shared between school and home. Information about attitudes and behaviours of Canadian families in relation to reading can be seen in a report from Scholastic in 2017.

This topic often makes parents anxious about whether their home is doing enough to produce children who love reading.  Here are some strategies from a British campaign to foster reading for pleasure, in and out of schools:

Reading with Kids

Inspiring Young Readers

Finally, for those interested in pursuing Sullivan and Brown’s report on the massive study of the impact of reading for pleasure, here is the reference:  Alice Sullivan & Matt Brown (2015) Reading for Pleasure and Progress in Vocabulary and Mathematics. British Educational Research Journal 41 (6), 971-991.