Saturday, May 11, 2013

Should kids read less?

Instead of reading for four hours a day, I think our kids would be better off reading for two hours a day and consuming carefully selected media (movies, television programs, podcasts, plays, and the like) for the remaining two hours. Here I mean National Geographic specials, Mythbusters, historical speeches, and anything else that meets essentially the same level of criteria we would set for the books and texts our kids read.) Real Housewife fans, sorry for getting your hopes up.

When you're reading, assuming what you're reading meets some minimum bar of quality, you are doing a couple of things:
#1. practicing decoding, fluency, and comprehension skills (i.e. practicing reading), and
#2. learning something about the world that can someday apply to other texts you'll read, or, in a more broad sense, other situations you'll encounter. This means context, content knowledge, and vocabulary.

When you're watching TV, you're not doing #1. Well, you're not practicing decoding or fluency, but you are practicing some sort of comprehension skills. And, unless your decoding and fluency skills are incredibly advanced, you're doing #2 much, much faster. By "doing #2", I mean building context, content knowledge, and vocabulary - not pooping. Grow up.

Just like professional athletes build their football abilities on the field/court/pitch part of the time, and in the weight room the other part of the time, we need to start targeting the knowledge gaps in more efficient ways than waiting for a child to sound out and slog through text he doesn't yet understand. Of course, the underlying philosophy here is that content knowledge (specific "background knowledge" for a given text) is essential for reading comprehension, and matters much more than a more generalized list of reading strategies.

If you're not convinced, I invite you to read the first three paragraphs of Laura Ingalls Wilder's "The Long Winter", a 4th-grade-level book, and think about what circumstances (in terms of applying reading strategies and knowing something about the world) would lead to a middle-school student from New Haven to be able to answer the questions that follow. What would such a student from New Haven have to have experienced in his/her education (or in his/her life) in order to fully comprehend these three paragraphs and accurately answer the questions that follow?

1. What does "corked it tightly" mean?
2. When does this story take place (what time of year? what time of day?)
3. Show me the motions Laura likely used when she "drew up a pailful of water".
4. After Laura had drawn the pailful of water, why did she rinse the jug?
5. What caused the prairie to shimmer? What color is it likely shimmering?

You and your kids can strategize away - good luck with that. In the meantime, we'll be driving to Iowa (hey Trpkosh), following the position of the sun, and handling hot, dark objects while discussing how color affects heat absorption and how evaporation has a cooling effect. Or, at the very least, we'll be watching TV and movies about the prairie, and building our knowledge of the world. You may decode one percent faster from the extra reading practice, but we will have a leg up when it comes to forming a coherent mental model of what we're reading.

As a bonus, here is a video of a 'science walk' my daughter Barbara and I took last week. She undoubtedly grew as a reader during these 45 minutes - more, I'd say, than if we had taken 45 minutes to read about flowers and erosion. Enjoy!