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Making reading a race

Submitted by on Thursday, 3 December 2009 2 Comments

There are two things I like about the new voluntary reading program at Big Guy’s school, which involves his teacher sending home two books that the kids read until they can complete the text without stumbling:

  • Each book hones in on a diphthong or digraph, which at least works the long-lost phonics into the curriculum.
  • Having pre-selected books ends the nightly hoo-ha over what to read. It’s a good problem to have – we have so many books Big Guy had trouble selecting one – but it was a pain.

There are two things I hate about the program, and the annoyance is starting to outweigh the benefits:

  • It’s not reading. It’s recitation.
  • It’s promoting competition among the kids – at least it is in Big Guy’s eyes – that has the focus on memorizing the book as quickly as possible in order to earn a sticker in order to one-up a classmate. Race to the Top has nothing on these kids.

The books are short – eight to 10 page – and rhyming. They’re more poem than story. There’s only been one so far with a real story line, and that tale relied on the illustrations for part of the plot. Yes, I know theory holds that you can “read the picture,” too. I think it’s silly, because “reading” a picture is not reading.

Neither is this, though. It’s memorization. Yes, I know that theory, too, that frequent exposure to words builds fluency. While I agree with that notion, “frequent exposure” by reading the same passages over and over builds fluency as flimsy as a Kleenex. Words that Big Guy was “fluent” in in a book last week he’s stumbling over this week.

Ay, but he earned his sticker and that’s all the matters to him. He needs to earn more, too, because he has only eight and D has 10. V has 18 and is about to earn his first free book for hitting 20. “I have to catch up,” Big Guy says as he reads the same 10 pages again for the third time that night.

And, no, I’m not happy that he’s actually spending a few more minutes reading every night, because it’s not minutes well spent. There’s no engagement – the annoying “why” and “what if” questions have been lost due to the lack of plot. After the first time through the book, there’s no time spent sounding out because the unfamiliar words all rhyme. The chance to learn decoding skills is lost in the rush to learn how to recite.

I miss the old way, nightly hoo-ha and all. I still sneak a bit of it in when Boots gets to pick “his” book after Big Guy finishes. I wish I’d thought this through a little more before signing up, though I suspect that once he saw his friends earning all those shiny stickers Big Guy would have wanted to sign up anyway.

I can’t wait until school is out for Christmas, so we can get down to some real learning and skip the No Child Left Behind-style memorization.

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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  • Sandra Foyt said:

    This reminds of our Bob book days. I purchased the entire set of phonetic readers for my kids, and made them read it. My daughter didn’t mind, but my son hated them. They were too boring. Finally, I stopped torturing him. We were already doing phonics work elsewhere, and he wanted to read a book with a real story. We switched to buddy reading a chapter book, and never looked back. Don’t even remember who I foisted those Bob books on!

  • Debra said:

    Same here! Big Guy has forgotten his book/sticker collection bag at school the past two days, and I’ve loved it. We’ve been reading a “Lion King” book instead, and he’s back to his normal inquisitive self. And I bet he’d never learn to read the word “hyena” from the books from school. :)

    Buddy reading chapter books is a great idea! The last time we tried it, the long blocks of gray frustrated him, but that was last spring. We might be ready to give it another go.