Monday, May 26, 2014

Myths, Fairy Tales, Fictions...or Lies?

Learning-to-read-reading-to-learn. It’s a myth. Like Loch Ness and Big Foot.
Learning-to-read-reading-to-learn. It’s a fairy tale. Like Little Red Riding Hood.
Learning-to-read-reading-to-learn. It’s fiction. Like Horton Hears a Who and Little House on the Prairie.
My mom visited Loch Ness -- no Nessie sighting.
Every time our Governor and State Superintendent of Public Schools talk about reading and books, I begin growling.  I hear them bloviate about reading instruction…and I can’t stay still. I have spent the bulk of my 39-year teaching career working with young readers: beginning readers, struggling readers, reluctant readers. Avid readers, alliterate readers, remedial readers. Confident readers and diffident ones.

In all those years, I met two non-readers. Guess what? Family issues meant they moved constantly, had little supervision in their lives, and too much chaos. One boy, a fourth grader, surely knew his letter sounds. “Cat” became “Kuh-AAA-Tuh” No meaning at all. We got him reading his first book…and he disappeared. Family moved again. The other, a freshman. Had been raised and homeschooled by his grandmother who finally got tired of his defiance and sent him to school…for the first time in his life. Again, just as we started getting a handle on his strengths and weaknesses… and he was gone.

I don’t know why I’m surprised when the Governor and Superintendent ignore education research, best practices, good teaching, when making their political points. They were dead-set against HB2625, which will now allow a team to make a unanimous decision to promote a 3rd grader who failed the infamous Reading/English Language Arts test now required. That’s all this law (man, that sounds awesome!) will do. Western Civilization is not destroyed. A parent, the child’s teacher, a teacher from the next grade, a principal, and a reading specialist can now sit down together and decide what’s best for a child. The vote must be unanimous to promote. Then the Superintendent must approve. A parent cannot veto the vote. There will be no ‘social promotion’ – another phrase that makes me quiver.

But to support their opposition to this team, they, once again, pulled out ‘Learning-to-read-reading-to-learn.’ as the reason we can’t trust a team of professionals and parents. “In 1st through 3rd, children learn to read; then they read to learn,” they parroted. Children must be retained, without parent input until the state, on a test that can’t measure either learning to read or reading to learn, has its pound of flesh. In the name of ‘learning to read.’

All it took was a 30-second Google search to find numerous links to prove this is a myth, a fairy tale, a fiction. Writers for ASCD, a respected professional development organization, traces the phrase back to educator Jean Chall in the 1990’s. I was surprised that the phrase was invented so recently…I’m sure I’d heard it before then. But there it is…1990.  Scholastic, another respected site, also agrees that this simplistic myth hides the real complexity of reading and reading instruction. My search also led me to Dr. Kimberly Tyson, a literacy expert. I share her deep frustration with adults who are not literacy professionals weighing into the discussion, exposing their ignorance. She cringes when uninformed people use the phrase; at this point, I grind my teeth.

The truth is, we are constantly learning to read, and hopefully, we’re reading to learn. Taking in information and making some kind of sense. Predicting, testing, questioning, confirming or correcting. There is continuous interplay between reading and learning.  Every time we pick up something to read we are learning. A menu, a brochure, a classic novel, a popular novel, nonfiction, a manual, directions, a magazine.

As we are learning to read constantly, so should we be reading to learn. Students need to be reading important pieces from the very first day of reading instruction. They should be reading pieces that have something to say, pieces that make them think and wonder and ask questions. The adults in their lives should be inviting them into the reading club, the club that knows reading is important work.

I’m well past ‘senior citizen’ status and I never stop learning to read; I never stop reading to learn. To say any different, with the surety of our leaders, as often as they say it, does not make it so. It’s still a myth. And repeating it makes it impossible to move forward, finding the best ways to assist every one of our students in learning to read and reading to learn.

Now that I'm retired, I volunteered all school year in my granddaughter’s elementary library. I watched the eagerness of the readers who returned books so they could check out more. I watched their choices. I talked to them about their favorites. They loved nonfiction: books about wolves and sharks. Books about world records and cooking. Books about science experiments. These children, on their own time, were choosing to read to learn.  They also spoke passionately about picture books and novels.  Even preschool babies were coming into the library with a stack of books, and leaving with another. I know the novelty of borrowing books was part of the appeal, but so were the words, the magic of the words.

With every book we read, we learned something about reading and the world. That’s the magic of reading.

I have a radical suggestion for our Governor and our Superintendent: if you truly want to support the literacy learning (reading and learning) of our children, support school libraries. Make certain they have the funds to buy new books, to replace beloved books that fall apart from devotion. Staff the school libraries with professionals and aides. Make sure the libraries are open all day every day. Make sure the library media center is the center and the heart of the school.  I saw that this year…lessons, books, the principal doing a lunch-read-aloud. Students coming in with their library pass to get more. Gentle negotiations with the librarian to promise to find those books that are still checked out so more can be taken home.

I also volunteered at my Big’s middle school and watched the process continue. Passionate conversations about books, students who come to the library to read and to learn. A professional librarian who supported both with love and knowledge. What a pleasure it was to watch the magic that happens in school libraries.

In 2012, SB1443 allowed strapped schools to divert funding from their libraries and use the money for other needed services…That means in some districts, no money has been invested in buying new books, and making sure there are certified library media specialists full time in libraries. It was a cynical move to force schools to prioritize their work. I know in Norman schools, the citizens have approved school bonds, and that is how we have new books. The money is allocated in October and must be spent by October. Other districts don’t have that kind of support, and that means no new books.

Even with the bond money, I know for the last two years I was able to buy (from my own salary) the new releases for my classroom library than our school librarians were. Because I spent my own money, my students did have access to the brand new titles we all love to read. But I paid the bill.

I would love to share research with our Governor and Superintendent. I have a book to suggest they read to learn:  Stephen Krashen, author of The Power of Reading, is clear: strong school libraries support reading for pleasure, for learning, and makes our children stronger, more able readers.

More research shows the same thing: school libraries contribute to higher test scores.  Instead of supporting our libraries and librarians, our state forces districts into a ‘Lady or the Tiger’ choice. The state forces districts to make decisions that contradict good research, in order to survive.

What lots of people don't know about me is I have school library certification, and am a librarian in my heart, as well as a classroom teacher, English teacher, and reading specialist. I feel qualified to share my experience and my research with our leaders.

I hope I don’t hear these myths, fairy tales and fictions from our policy makers any more. I hope they look for ways to support learning to read and reading to learn. Let’s make sure every child in Oklahoma has plenty of books so she can do both: read and learn; learn and read.


  1. ......."In 2012, SB1443 allowed strapped schools to divert funding from their libraries and use the money for other needed services…"

    Excellent commentary! I'm so glad you speak about SB 1443 by Ford, of course. It's been a constant drain of funding. They did an education cut that eviscerated most Mid-Del library programs in 2003, the year I retired. Our full time librarian, Ann Barnes was told she would have to cover two schools. I'm convinced that her stroke and death were brought on by the stress she experienced during the last two weeks of school after we learned of the cuts. She was only about 50.
    Mary Francis

    1. Mary Francis, I started my teaching career in Norman, in 1979, as the librarian at Eisenhower Elementary. I'd lost touch with some of the policies that affected libraries, but I knew they were short-sighted and mean-spirited. The library is the heart of the school, and a vital part of the instructional vision.

  2. I am glad you shed some light on this issue through this post. It is depressing to manage a library with no budget at all. The collection is showing much wear and tear. I wonder if library funding will ever be restored. I have managed through funds from book fairs. A successful book fair can make about one-third of the budget (before 2011.)

    Children of poverty are much less likely to visit a public library and have books in the home than middle class children. A library that is fully supported can impact literacy for these children.

  3. My avid reader attended Eisenhower Elem/Norman in '93-'94, and what a wonderfully superb learning environment it was! READING was promoted and encouraged!