How love became a weapon in the reading wars

How love became a weapon in the reading wars

When I read almost any article about education, I cannot help but be struck by the language that is used—and not used—to discuss the goals of schooling. Teachers, for example, are almost invariably described as teaching students to love reading, or to get excited about reading—not to actually read, or to read well, or to become more reflective or thoughtful readers. The emphasis is squarely on the emotion surrounding reading rather than on the act of reading itself, or on the intellectual development it entails.

It seems to me that this has become such an accepted way to speak about education that its presumable implication—that obviously, yes, loving to read involves being able to read, and that teachers should convey such overwhelming enthusiasm for books that children will fall in love with them as well—is taken for granted.

I think, however, that the precise wording of the statement is actually quite significant. In fact, I would argue that it should be taken both seriously and literally. Understood this way, it points to a fundamental gap in the way different groups (roughly corresponding to Balanced vs. Structured Literacy) conceive of the purpose of reading instruction, and that in turns shapes the two sides’ beliefs about what classroom practices and pedagogies are deemed acceptable.

Now, as a voracious, compulsive reader since the age of seven, I can easily testify to the transporting, mind-opening, utterly addictive capacities of the printed word. I’m the person who got sent to the principal’s office in elementary school for reading in class when I wasn’t supposed to—more than once. Love of reading is not a thereoretical concept for me. What I would like to do here, however, is make a distinction between love as a desirable outcome of instruction, and love as its primary, overriding aim.

In a post on the Right to Read Project, Margaret Goldberg points out that a love of reading is not something that can actually be taught, particularly when children are struggling with the most basic aspects of the task; rather, they must be taught to crack the code of reading so that they can begin to experience reading as a source of pleasure. As Goldberg points out, “[e]nthusiasm is a part of good teaching, but communicating a love of books isn’t the same thing as teaching reading.”

Essentially, the standard narrative gets things exactly backwards: it is assumed that children must “discover” how to read and be taught to love, whereas in reality children must be taught to read so that they can discover a love of reading on their own.

So allow me to make a radical proposition: The point of reading instruction is not to teach children to love reading. The point of reading instruction is to teach children to read. 

Far too often (although by no means always), adult discussions of early reading instruction are framed in terms of whether children will be able to have the experience of losing themselves deeply in a good book. But although reading can involve great enjoyment, the consequences of knowing how to make sense out of marks on a page extend far beyond the ability to devour, say, Harry Potter. A child who cannot read below a basic level will almost certainly become an adult who struggles to decipher things like the instructions on a medication bottle, or articles in a newspaper written above a tabloid level.

In a brilliant piece about the smugness and condescension that often accompany pronouncements about the necessity that children be taught to love reading, the Australian reading specialist Lyn Stone discusses the distinction between reading for pleasure vs. reading as a life skill:

Make no mistake, being literate is an essential part of being able to function in a complex society. But a love of reading is a personal thing, not a quality of life deal-breaker. Parents all over the globe fret about their children reading for pleasure because of this fallacy. For goodness sake, relax. Literacy and love of literature are two completely different things. The former is essential and the latter is personal.

Not every child is going to love reading, just as not every child is going to love sports, or science, or art, and there is something rather odd about a system so fixated on dictating children’s emotional response to a fundamental life skill.

What I find most worrisome, however, is the way in which the insistence on love and excitement has been weaponized as a means to block the use of teaching methods that would almost certainly result in millions more children learning to read.

To question the assumptions that have undergirded American education in the century since William Heard Kilpatrick of Columbia Teachers College proposed his “project method” is to invite accusations of rigidity, of coldheartedness, of destroying a love of reading, of not caring about children as unique individuals, etc. And make no mistake, these are powerful and entrenched beliefs. The notion that progressive ends in the long term might involve less-than-progressive means in the short term is largely not entertained.

As E.D. Hirsch explains in The Knowledge Deficit:

The dominant ideas in American education are virtually unchallenged within the educational community. American educational expertise (which is not the same as educational expertise in nations that perform better than we do) has a monolithic character in which dissent is stifled…At the beginning of the twentieth century century, the parent organism, Teachers College at Columbia University, exported professors and [romantic principles], resulting in an intellectual sameness across the nation’s education schools. Even today, criticism of of those fundamental ideas is hard to find in these institutions.” 

And in Leaving Johnny Behind, Anthony Pedriana points out that between the mid-1930s, when the last strictly phonics reader went out of print, and 1955, when Rudolph Flesch published Why Johnny Can’t Read, any serious questioning of romantic conceptions of education was for all intents and purposes absent:

While many continued to debate issues pertinent to early reading training during this time, I find it interesting that this progressive period did not precipitate the kind of ideological confrontations we saw when [Horace] Mann first proposed his ideas. Perhaps it occurred so gradually that most educators were oblivious to its evolution. But another explanation might lie in the fact that the constructs of progressivism were difficult to oppose. Those who had the temerity to confront them ran the risk of being characterized as sort of anti-child-centric or anti-meaning-based thug.

Particularly in the 1945-55 period, the lack of challenge to these ideas is not at all surprising. During the post-war years, there was a concerted campaign to define American culture as open, tolerant, and forward-thinking, in opposition to the Communist menace. In this context, the “rigid,” systematic teaching of sound-letter correspondences could easily be construed as a threat to liberty and democracy themselves.

What Does It Mean to Be “Child-Centered”? 

Because the whole language/balanced literacy side has claimed the mantle of child-centeredness, the phonics camp is automatically placed on the defensive. It must bend over backwards to convince people that no, teaching children sound-letter relationships can be done kindly; and that explicit, systematic instruction will not permanently obliterate their love of reading or their ability to think critically and independently.

In that context, “child-centered” is employed as a euphemism that that serves to allow all sorts of harmful pedagogical practices to proceed unchecked (although in fairness, many practitioners are unaware that they are harmful), and that acts as a buffer against criticism.

As I wrote about in a recent post, the original impetus for child-friendly teaching methods was well justified—the Dickensian schoolmasters of the nineteenth century did in fact browbeat their young charges, subject them to hours of drudging repetition, and punish them harshly when they failed to comply. It would be hard to fault the progressive reformers of the early twentieth century for doing their best to stamp out such methods. The problem is that long after this type of teaching had disappeared, it continued to be held up as a shield for deflecting legitimate questions about the effectiveness of practices that result in millions of children being unable to decode texts beyond a basic level. (According to the National Center for Education Statistics, around a fifth of the American population, or 65 million people, is now functionally illiterate.)

What began as a legitimate and necessary grievance became a knee-jerk response to an outdated reality, and then finally a weapon for a defending methods that can be just as harmful as anything dreamed up by a nineteenth-century pedagogue. Anxiety, low self-esteem, shame, self-loathing, delinquency… Children who insist that they are stupid and incapable of learning, who hide in the back of the classroom, who become disruptive or develop stomach pains that send them to the nurse’s office, anything to avoid reading in front of their classmates. The emotional, social, and ultimately economic consequences are devastating and long lasting.

It should go without saying that these are not outcomes that a system based on children’s genuine needs would produce. But “child-centered” has in effect become code for practices designed to provide easy and immediate gratification; that fail to distinguish between short-term amusement and long-term aims; and that indulge the belief that learning should always be easy and fun. Essentially, this is education as fantasy. As Pedriana puts it, “if we wish to honor children’s lifelong needs, we need to let them know that, when it comes to achieving at high levels, the operational words are practice, practice, practice… How can we expect children to develop this kind of discipline…if we never put forth this expectation?”

To be clear, this is not about arguing that kindergartners should spend hours sitting at desks, or in front of computers, doing worksheets. That’s far from appropriate either. It is, however, about the avoidance of any activity not believed to provoke joy and excitement as the immediate goal. Whether the classroom activities that actually occur do in fact create joy and excitement—never mind actual reading ability—is beside the point, as is the question of whether purportedly non-child-centered activities actually lead to boredom and lack of engagement. What matters is that explicit, systematic instruction is held to destroy a love of learning in theory.

It also does not help when teachers do their best to sabotage a structured program in order to “prove” its lack of effectiveness, as occurred at Pedriana’s school. If teachers go out of their way to present material in an unengaging way, or refuse to try to understand the logic behind a sequenced approach, then obviously even the most rigorously designed program will produce less than stellar results.

This is not to imply that teachers do not genuinely want children to learn to read; however, a serious problem arises when received ideas about teaching come into conflict with instructional methods directly opposed to those ideas. Unfortunately, there is often no practical way to reconcile those two things without sacrificing effectiveness of instruction. The assertion that “Yes, of course—of course—we want children to learn to read” is accompanied by a tacit, “But only as long as the methods used are consistent with our notions about learning.”

In an attempt to manage the cognitive dissonance, this often leads to earnest pronouncements about every reading program having some value, or about the necessity of every teacher “doing what’s best for them.” But behind these anodyne statements lurks a threat: “If we cannot teach in a manner consistent with our principles, then we will change the definition of what it means to read.” Or even: “Rather than teach children in a way that we believe destroys a love of reading, we would rather that some children not learn to read.”

A big part of the issue here is that when children are five or six, the gap between grade-level performance and “a little behind” is often less stark than it becomes later on. For many teachers who work with the youngest readers, the long-term consequences of ineffective instruction are mostly an abstraction. They do not see middle- or high-schoolers who continue to read largely by guessing, who lack the tools to decode more advanced vocabulary, and who are convinced that they are stupid or deficient because they are unable to do things that their classmates learned long ago. For teachers who do not observe these things firsthand, critiques of Balanced Literacy may consequently seem ungrounded, or unfair, or “biased.”

When I told fellow blog contributor Valerie Mitchell that I was writing this piece, she commented to me that the insistence on children’s learning to love to read often has something of a slightly manic, obsessive quality, almost as if it were coming from a jilted lover. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms before, but it seemed like she might be onto something. I’ve been turning the reaons for this over in my mind, and the best explanation I can come up with is that progressive educational theory is largely based on the primacy of intrinsic motivation.

Essentially, learning that is internally motivated is held to be “authentic,” while learning that is externally motivated is less real. So if children do not love reading, then their reading cannot truly result in learning, or their learning will not be genuine.

Consequently, a teacher’s job is not to instruct students directly, but rather to inspire them so that they will be motivated to teach themselves. Because text is the source of so much knowledge, a love of reading is the best way to ensure that students can naturally be their own teachers.

If students do not love to read, however, then they will not be inspired to teach themselves, and teachers will have no choice but to motivate them externally. Thus, the whole instructional model is jeopardized.

This is where theory meets reality and comes up short—hence the tendency to double-down on it.

Among the many problems with this kind of thinking is that it confuses cause and effect. The assumption is that if children are “taught” to love reading, then they will be able to read. But in fact, the reality is just the opposite: kids (people, actually) generally only love doing things when they are able to do them. It is unfair—cruel, in fact—to withold essential instruction from children and then insist that they enjoy an activity when they struggle with it. When children later discover what they have not been taught, some of them are downright furious. (As one of Richard McManus’s students hissed upon being taught letter-sound relationship for the first time, “Why didn’t anyone tell me this before?”)

To be perfectly fair, many highly effective instructional materials for teaching reading are not exactly thrilling fare for adults. And yes, teaching to mastery involves a lot of repetition because that’s how people learn things. But to worry about what’s interesting for adults is to miss the point: being a teacher means putting one’s own immediate, grown-up interests aside and figuring out how to engage students while giving them what they actually need. In the long run, it does no one any favors for children to get the message that even modest, eminently surmountable struggles are something to be avoided.

As Margaret Goldberg put it, albeit in a slightly different context, “it’s not enough to mean well.” And that, for me, is what it comes down to. It is insufficient for the educational community to crouch behind a wall of good intentions, insisting that because we only want children to love reading, we cannot be held accountable. Love can go awry in all sorts of ways, and the intentions do not make the consequences any less devastating. In the 1950s, at least, the neural processes that underlay the reading process were still largely a mystery; today, while there are still aspects of reading that are not fully understood, the fundamentals have been well established for many decades. To use love as an excuse for willful ignorance is, well, inexcusable.