Knowing What Can and Can’t be Taught

“It is good books, not good reading methods, that make good readers,” John Holt told me, and I have certainly seen the wisdom of this comment with our three girls. They all learned to read using different methods and at different ages, but they all wanted to read because books are viewed by them as pleasure and information tools, not school assessment tools. The wisdom of this approach is bolstered by research, such as that done by Dr. Alan Thomas, the success of many children who learn to read later than is preferred in school and often with little, or no, adult help (there are many homeschooling and unschooling stories about this), and educational concepts such as delayed academics (Ray and Dorothy Moore’s work; Waldorf schools) and Jim Trelease’s Read-Aloud initiative.

However, since this is a low-cost, learner-centered approach to reading it requires patience, hope, and trust—three key elements for learning that are severely lacking in education—and so it is ignored in favor of structured reading programs aimed at decoding essays on standardized tests. Educationists reduce the world to a classroom and take the motto of the alchemist and father of education, John Amos Comenius, as their reason to be: To teach everybody, everything, perfectly. From this medieval perspective, modern education feels it has the right and the mission to teach children everything—to turn the lead minds of children into the gold minds of graduates—so they will become well-rounded individuals, good citizens, and assets to the national economy. Though this process is expensive, doesn't work universally, is often counter-productive, and flies in the face of what we know about how people learn best, we have embedded it in our lives so much that most people refuse to consider other ways of learning. However, it is just as important to know what can’t be taught as well as what can be, and this is something that educationists refuse to accept. For instance, a love of reading cannot be taught to a class, it must be caught individually.

Not Teaching

Though Holt had this insight in the early sixties and wrote about it often (for instance, in The Underachieving School, the chapter titled “How Teachers Make Children Hate Reading”), and other teachers have noted similar findings before and since Holt, these indirect, inexpensive, social capital approaches to improving education are totally ignored by policy-makers as a serious tool. Nonetheless, teachers who are serious about their work and explore every way they can help their students, including NOT teaching them but rather giving the student things, time, and space to explore and think on their own, continue to discover how they can facilitate learning without having to script and instruct every step of it.

Further, I hope this article gives support and options to homeschoolers who find their children aren’t enjoying their reading program and to unschoolers who are criticized for letting their children read (or not read) at their own pace. One good argument homeschoolers can use to justify not forcing their children to read just because they are a certain age, is that if schools can use intrinsic motivation and access to books at home to improve reading, so can homeschoolers.

Here is a story from Education Week—The Home Library Effect: Transforming At-Risk Readers—about a classroom teacher who now supports this important, but underappreciated and underused, aspect of helping children learn. Also, I can’t help but note how this teacher used his own funds to get this project going, another element homeschoolers share with teachers who want to break the mold of conventional schooling.

We called our classroom adventure "The 1,000 Books Project." Each of the 25 children in my class received 40 books over the course of 2nd and 3rd grade, for a total of 1,000 new books in their homes.

The project was simple to launch. Scholastic donated 20 books per child, and I purchased the other 20 through a combination of my own funds, support from individuals and local organizations, and bonus points. The kids received three types of books each month: copies of class read-alouds, guided reading books, and individual choices selected from Scholastic’s website.

. . . The total cost for each student's home library was less than $50 each year, a small investment to move a struggling reader from frustration to confidence.

Growing Readers

These 25 students made more progress in their reading than I have experienced with any other class. By the end of the project's second year, they had exceeded the district expectation for growth by an average of nine levels on the DRA and five points on the computerized Measures of Academic Progress reading test. And they made this growth despite formidable obstacles to academic success—20 of the 25 are English language learners, and all but one live in poverty. . .

. . . While the numerical data on my students' achievement is encouraging, it is their stories that will stick with me . . . I watched child after child become a different kind of writer, thinker, and human being because of his or her growth as a reader . . .

. . . .A 2001 study by Susan Neuman and Donna Celano found that the ratio of books to children in middle-income neighborhoods is 13 books to one child, while in low-income neighborhoods the ratio is one book to 300 children.

This "book gap" is easier to erase than the more complex barriers involved in poverty. Richard Allington found that giving children 12 books to take home over the summer resulted in gains equal to summer school for lower-income children, and had twice the impact of summer school for the poorest of those children.

All this without worksheets, extrinsic rewards, or sitting in a stifling classroom in the middle of July.

Home reading surveys showed that at the beginning of 2nd grade, my students had access to an average of three books at home. Increasing this number to 40 or more books had far-reaching effects. Students' fluency improved because the children could engage in repeated readings of favorite "just right" books, and parents reported increased time spent reading at home during weekends, holidays, and summer break.

The only incentive for this increase in reading time was intrinsic: the pleasure each child felt in reading his or her own book, beloved as a favorite stuffed animal.

. . . The home libraries have also had a tremendous impact on each child's love of reading, which has ignited that same love of books in their parents, siblings, cousins, and friends . . .

Studies show that most homeschooling families use libraries a lot and typically have lots of books in their homes, but the benefits of family literacy are leveraged by homeschoolers in many other ways, not just as a love of books. Conversations, inventions, plays, movies, games and all sorts of adventures often evolve from children reading books they enjoy. It is the unexpected turns and surprises of learning that flow from what one reads that makes reading so much more than a lesson to move through. It is a shame that so many well-meaning parents and teachers turn reading into a chore to be done with as quickly as possible for many children, especially since, as Justin Minkel and other teachers have written, the answer is so much easier than education theory makes it out to be.