The Tortoise's Tale

"... we went to school in the sea. The Master was an old turtle-we used to call him Tortoise-"
"Why did you call him Tortoise, if he wasn't one?" Alice asked.
"We called him Tortoise, because he taught us, " said the Mock Turtle

Jill P. May, editor

Building a World of Frequent Readers: How Can Teachers Encourage All Students to Read?

Kevin Thomas and April Burke

Kevin K. Thomas was a Quiz Writer for Scholastic Inc. for two years and is currently a graduate student in the Master of Arts in Humanities program at Central Michigan University. In addition, he is an organizer for two higher education teachers' unions. His research interests include the history of human struggle for liberation that naturally occurs under all forms of oppression and the role that literacy plays in those struggles.

Dr April M. Burke an assistant professor of Educational Linguistics at Central Michigan University where she teaches a variety of courses, including Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) and pedagogical grammar methods courses for pre-service teachers. After serving as a middle and high school teacher, she earned her Ph.D. in Literacy and Language Education from Purdue University. She conducts research on the schooling experience and academic performance of minority and disadvantaged K-12 student populations. The primary focus of her research and scholarship is the schooling of emergent bilinguals, i.e. students who are learning English as second or additional language. She also conducts research on children's literature and best practices for literacy instruction.

Literacy is a fundamental social skill. Moreover, it is part of the way in which humans construct identities and develop psychologically; literacy is an ability that contributes to the overall health of a child. But how can teachers instill the value of reading in all young readers?

Scholastic Inc., the world’s “largest children’s book publisher”, has commissioned the Kids and Family Reading Report since 2006 and in January 2015 included for the first time an examination of the factors which contribute to children and young adults becoming frequent readers (Scholastic). In this article, we discern and discuss the report’s primary findings; namely, to become frequent readers, children and young adults need access to a variety of books that represent their interests, freedom to choose which books to read, as well as encouragement and time to read. These conclusions corroborate findings from other studies in the field of literacy education (see for example Jug and Vilar, Stack et al., Miller, Clary, and Durrant et al.) and might seem obvious, but unfortunately, the literacy needs of many children are not met either at home or at school. Additionally, in this article we discuss why poor and minority youth are less likely to become frequent readers, and we provide practical advice for teachers that they can use to encourage all of their students to read.

Fundamentally, we are attempting to answer a large sociological question: How can all students be encouraged to read? We believe that in order to create a world of frequent readers, ultimately broad societal and economic inequities must be eliminated. Moreover, due to these grave inequities, teachers, as individuals, are limited in their ability to provide all of the conditions necessary to foster frequent readership in every student. Failing to acknowledge the impact of societal conditions, such as poverty and systemic racism, on students can render a teacher incapable of properly assessing the reasons why a student in her class is failing to develop literacy skills at an ideal rate. In this example, both the student and the teacher risk becoming demoralized by failing to meet standards that are unattainable due to factors beyond either of their control. Given this danger, our first piece of advice for teachers is to recognize that there are limits to what individual teachers can provide for their students. This is not to say that a teacher is completely restricted in her ability to foster frequent readership. On the contrary, we argue that there are creative and practical ways that teachers can inspire students to read. Our second piece of advice for teachers is to adapt their instruction and materials to meet their students’ specific needs. For example, we encourage teachers to develop surveys to determine their students’ favorite books and use the results of these surveys to build class-specific annotated booklists and classroom libraries. These booklists and book collections, built by teachers at the local level, provide students with a more adequate literacy education by giving them access to the books they need for becoming frequent readers – that is, books they are likely to choose to read.

Research has shown that to increase their likelihood of becoming frequent readers, children need access to books from birth (Zuckerman 1661). Findings from a meta-analysis on the effects of exposure to print material on children from birth to adulthood indicate that the more a child is exposed to print, the better the child’s reading comprehension skills will become and the more likely the child is to become a frequent reader (Mol and Bus 2). However, the primary factor affecting children’s access to books is whether their guardians and the communities they live in are affluent enough to purchase and provide access to books. In other words, access is fundamentally determined by a child’s economic and social conditions. Authors of an Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report argue that “being a regular and enthusiastic reader” is more important for academic success than “having well-educated parents in good jobs” (qtd. in “Catching Up”). This argument suggests that a child’s individual decisions and attitude trumps environmental factors like the child’s socio-economic status and whether the child’s school is adequately funded. The reality is that children who have parents and who live in communities capable of providing them with access to books have a better chance of becoming avid readers than children raised in poverty.

Fifth-grade teacher and action researcher Trudy Nelson explains that teachers also play an important role in encouraging students to read. Nelson’s techniques for fostering frequent readership corroborate the recommendations made in the Kids and Family Reading Report and include letting students choose books they want to read and providing students with access to high-interest books at a variety of reading levels. Nelson built a large classroom library and explains, “It is important to have high-quality literature surrounding the students in the classroom, and when selecting books for the classroom library it is also important to consider children’s interests” (120-121). Nelson stated that she was able to build this library because she worked in schools that received adequate funding; unfortunately, not all teachers work in adequately-funded schools, and not all students—especially poor students—have access to large classroom libraries.

When deciding which books to provide students with access to, a teacher needs to know which books his or her students are likely to want to read. According to the Kids and Family Reading Report, 24% of children ages 6-8 prefer books that contain characters that look like them, and 30% of young adults ages 15-17 want books that are about topics that they experience in their lives (58). This raises the question: Do minority youth have access to books in which they feel represented? Despite the importance of children having access to texts which contain narratives and depictions of characters that reflect their own cultures, there is a lack of children’s books by and about people of color. Members of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), which is based out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education, collect statistics on the number of books published in the US by and about people of color. In 2014, CCBC members reviewed 3,500 of the approximately 5,000 children’s books published that year in the US. Of those reviewed, 84 were by and 180 were about African or African Americans, 20 were by and 38 were about American Indians, 129 were by and 112 were about Asian Pacifics or Asian Pacific Americans, and 59 were by and 66 were about Latinos. The total number of books by people of color was 292 or approximately 8.3%, and the total number of books about people of color was 396 or approximately 11.3% (“Children’s Books”). The result of these unfortunate statistics is that many minority children have limited access to books in which they feel represented.

Fifth-grade teacher Erika Swarts Gray conducted a study to examine the criteria used by students and teachers to select books (“The Importance of Visibility”). The following passage, written by one of Gray’s African American students in his reading journal, powerfully illustrates the importance of providing African American students with access to books written by and about African Americans:

Black people want to get into basketball or football not no writing books. If they want to write books they can but they don't. I'm thinking about being a basketball or football player too. I guess it's just in our blood or something. White people probably want to be a writer. I guess that's in their blood too. That's why there are not many black people today writing (480).

Gray argues that in order to provide access, teachers require money to buy and time to read recently published children’s books. While we agree with Gray on this point, this quote reveals the deeper social problems of racism and inequality. Gray’s student lacks the desire to become a writer and believes the reason is biological rather than sociological. He is unaware of the social history which has unfairly conditioned African Americans economically and ideologically. Understanding the root of this problem requires acknowledging the reality of systemic racism still present throughout the world.

Systemic racism is described by Michelle Alexander in her New York Time’s bestseller The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. In this book, Alexander reveals how the War on Drugs is a fundamentally discriminatory and racist initiative that functions to segregate communities and perpetrate inequality as the Jim Crow laws once did. Alexander explains how the US justice system discriminates against Black men and why prisons in the US are predominantly filled with people of color. Systemic racism must end in order to end illiteracy; the bottom line is that, systemic racism is a barrier to literacy development for a significant percentage of children in the world, and its impact on children cannot be remedied solely by the efforts of individual teachers.

It is also important to consider from which cultures the literacy being taught comes from and whether or not a balanced or bilingual approach is being implemented for minority groups with different first languages. In her article “Aboriginal Literacy”, Myra Dunn explains the impact of various forms of oppression on the literacy development of indigenous children from Australia. Dunn argues that the impact of racism and oppression on the literacy development of minority children has international relevance. As we mentioned, members of the CCBC have shown that African Americans, American Indians, Asian Pacific Americans, and Latinos in the US, lack even an industry which adequately produces books that represent them. Dunn explains, “Illiteracy is a symptom of powerlessness rather than a cause of it” (Dunn 678). If a section of society is illiterate, this is a sign of oppression, a sign that certain individuals have been unnecessarily denied access to resources that society as a whole is capable of providing.

In his article “Building on Conceptual Interpretations of Aboriginal Literacy in Anishnaabe Research: A Turtle Shaker Model”, Brent Debassige emphasizes the importance of Native literacy, specifically the use of Native literacy instructional methods and materials, as a critical component of the education of Native populations (6-7). Native literacy must be fostered, maintained, and given the same level of respect as literacy instruction in English and other dominant languages. Additionally, bilingual education can help guarantee a better quality of education for all students (National Association of Bilingual Education) and is especially important for improving the educational outcomes and schooling experiences of impoverished and minority groups. To achieve a world of frequent readers, we must abandon antiquated assimilation models and elevate the status of Native literacy and bilingual literacy practices.

Thus far, we have discussed the necessary conditions for encouraging frequent readers and the relation between illiteracy and economic inequality. There is a close relation between providing choice and access because providing a child with the freedom to choose which books to read—though crucial—loses its value if the child does not have access to books which represent his or her interests. According to the Kids and Family Reading Report, children are more likely to enjoy reading books they have chosen to read for themselves than ones chosen for them by others; 91% of children ages 6-17 said their favorite books were those they had selected by themselves (56), and the number one reason provided by respondents for choosing books above or below their reading level was if the book was about a topic that interested them (54-55).

In her article “Becoming a Classroom of Readers”, sixth-grade teacher Donalyn Miller explains “no single practice inspires my students to read as much as the opportunity to choose their own books” (n.p.). Unfortunately, according to the Kids and Family Reading Report, the majority of children and young adults who took the survey did not have access to enough books in which they were interested: 73% of children ages 6-17 responded, “I would read more if I could find more books that I like” (60). The report provides some indication of the types of books children and teens like; for example, the majority (55%) of children who took survey said they prefer print books to electronic books (ebooks) (69), and 70% of children and teens ages 6-17 responded that they want books that make them laugh (57).

Miller provides several suggestions to help teachers determine which books and types of books their students prefer, including helping students collectively generate a list of favorite books. The list developed by students in Miller’s own sixth-grade class was titled “Our 15 Favorite Books”. Class book lists can help teachers communicate more easily with children and young adults, assess which kinds of books they need access to, and help them make qualified decisions when selecting books to read. Miller also suggests introducing students to many different types of books, having conversations with students about books that they are likely to find interesting, and encouraging students to read by condoning their choice of books to read.

Localized booklists, built by teachers and based on students’ interests, can be used to enhance “communities of readers”, that is, teacher-student book clubs (Marshall 21-22), which can be conducted districtwide during a common lunch period. Other authors, including Roberta Teague Herrin and Sheila Quinn Oliver, Alleen Pace Nilsen, and Isabel Schon, provide examples of annotated booklists; however, when looking for published book lists, teachers should be aware that some are outdated or specific to particular student populations. Additionally, some may be too general to meet the needs of their specific students.

Even if provided with adequate access to books and freedom to choose which ones to read, the issue remains that children are not born with an innate interest in books. Teachers, parents, and guardians can help children realize the value of reading by encouraging them to read. Pediatricians and teachers agree that encouragement is necessary for children to become frequent readers (Scholastic 2-3; Zuckerman 1661). Unfortunately, despite the evidence that encouragement generally helps produce more frequent readers, most children do not receive sufficient encouragement to read.

Authors of the Kids and Family Reading Report note that three out of four parents who said they stopped reading aloud at home to their child before age nine said they did so because their child was “old enough to read on his/her own” (32); however, 40% of children ages 6-11 indicated that they “did not want their parents to stop reading to them” (33), and 83% of children and teens ages 6-17 reported enjoyed having books read aloud at home (33-34). Clearly, many children want to be read to more at home, and they want to be read to after they can read on their own. They also want to be encouraged to read, and they enjoy having this social time with their parents and guardians. This information on children’s reading preferences needs to reach all teachers and parents, but, unfortunately, lower-income parents were less likely to report that they were advised to read to their children from birth (40). This may be because lower-income parents often do not have access to the following primary sources of this advice: pediatricians, parenting books, parenting magazines, and parenting classes. Instead, lower-income parents reported that their primary sources of parenting advice were friends and members of their family (Scholastic 41). The organization Reach Out and Read, founded by pediatricians, physicians, nurses, and educators, seeks to remedy this situation and promote child literacy by providing pediatric advice to poor parents around the world. Reach Out and Read conducts literacy campaigns which involve physicians encouraging parents to read to their children daily (Zuckerman 1660-661). Such advice emphasizes the importance and necessity of encouragement outside the classroom for students to become frequent readers.

In addition to encouragement, children need time to read, and a primary way that teachers can encourage students to read is by providing time to read independently. According to the survey results shared in the Kids and Family Reading Report, most students are not given adequate time to read independently in school; 67% of children and teens ages 6-17 reported never having designated class time to read independently (47). However, the ones who are afforded time to read independently find this time to be enjoyable; 52% of those who experienced time to read independently in school as a class felt it was a positive experience, and 34% even said it was one of their “favorite parts of the school day” (49). In addition, perhaps one of the most profound findings discussed in the report was that poorer children were “far less likely to read books outside of school” than their more affluent peers (45). This finding illustrates the relationship between poverty and access to the general requirements of literacy development; children in lower-income households lack access to books in general, access to books that interest them, and time to read independently. Unfortunately, this is also true for minority youth, including those who are learning English as an additional language.

In her book Overtested: How High-Stakes Accountability Fails English Language Learners, Jessica Zacher Pandya explains how current federal school accountability mandates have resulted in the increased use of class time for high-stakes testing and an increase in the adoption of highly-structured curricula delivered at a fast pace, both of which can be detrimental to English language learners (ELLs), who are also referred to as emergent bilinguals (García). According to Pandya, these policies and programs have resulted in inadequate time for student learning and “a scarcity of occasions for meaningful engagement with the English language in and around texts” (57). Pandya argues that reducing the amount of class time spent on high-stakes testing, would give teachers more time to dedicate to meaningful activities and formative assessments which provide immediate information regarding students’ needs (98).

Reports like Scholastic’s Kids and Family Reading Report provide valuable information about students’ general literacy needs, but it is important to recognize that there are profound social and economic barriers to children’s literacy development. Children raised in poverty who attend schools that are underfunded are less likely to have their literacy needs met than children raised in affluent homes who attend well-funded schools. And due to the confounding factors of race and class, minority youth who are raised in poverty are at the greatest disadvantage when it comes to receiving an adequate literacy education. Despite these obstacles, there is much that teachers can do to foster frequent readership. First, as Martens et al. suggest, multi-cultural and global literature should be used by teachers in all classrooms. Next, teachers should develop or find materials suited to their students’ specific interests and needs. Lastly, schools need to be adequately funded. If these three steps are taken, teachers will be in a better position to foster the literacy development of their students and inspire more of them to become frequent readers.

Works Cited

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Clary, Linda Mixon. “Getting Adolescents to Read.” Journal of Reading (1991): 340-45. Print.

Brent, Debassige. “Building on Conceptual Interpretations of Aboriginal Literacy in Anishnaabe research: A Turtle Shaker Model.” Canadian Journal of Education 36, no. 2 (2013): 4-33. Print.

Durrant, Cal, Lynne Goodwin, and Ken Watson. “Encouraging Young Readers to Reflect on Their Processes of Response: Can It Be Done, Is It Worth Doing?” English Education 22, no. 4 (1990): 211-219. Print.

Dunn, Myra. “Aboriginal Literacy: Reading the Tracks.” Reading Teacher 54, no. 7 (2001): 678-87. Print.

García, Ofelia. “Emergent Bilingulas and TESOL: What's in a Name?” TESOL Quarterly 43, no.2 (2009): 322-326. Print.

George, Marshall A. “Faculty-Student Book Clubs Create Communities of Readers in Two Urban Middle Schools.” Middle School Journal, 35, no. 3 (2004): 21-26. Print.

Gray, Erika Swarts. “The Importance of Visibility: Students' and Teachers' Criteria for Selecting African American Literature” The Reading Teacher 62, no. 6 (2009): 472-481. Print.

Herrin, Roberta Teague, and Sheila Quinn Oliver. “Appalachian Children’s Literature: An Annotated Bibliography.” School Library Journal 56, no. 4 (2010): 390. Print.

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National Association of Bilingual Education. National Association of Bilingual Education, 2016. Web. July, 2016.

Nelson, Trudy. “Building Empathy and Character: Children Reading and Responding to Literature.” Exploring Culturally Diverse Literature for Children and Adolescents: Learning to Listen in New Ways. Eds. Darwin L. Henderson and Jill P. May. Boston (2005): Pearson, 118-132. Print.

Nilsen, Alleen Pace, National Council of Teachers of English, Committee on the Junior High and Middle School Booklist. Your reading: a booklist for junior high and middle school students. Urbana, Ill: The Council, 1991. Print.

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Zuckerman, Barry "Promoting Early Literacy in Pediatric Practice: Twenty Years of Reach Out and Read." Pediatrics (2009): 1660-665. Print.

Kevin Thomas and April Burke

Volume 19, Issue 1, The Looking Glass, August 2016

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"Building a World of Frequent Readers: How Can Teachers Encourage All Students to Read?
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

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