We’re in a mad rush to speed up childhood again. This time rushing them through the delights of children’s literature.
Children are asked to read “at their level.” For schools participating in the Accelerated Reader program (owned by a publicly traded corporation), reading level is all about words, not ideas, storyline or emotional maturity. A child who’s a strong reader is expected to reach higher and higher for ever more complicated text regardless of social and emotional understanding.
It’s taken some digging for me to realize how books are labeled with an AR number. A computer scans them. The scan comes up with a number considering three factors: sentence length, word length and word difficulty level. Nothing about what topics the book covers, what big ideas are inside, how deeply characters are developed, how skilled the writing is, or whether the child can emotionally handle the book.
As a writer of children’s Middle Grade fiction, this is baffling to me. Books are all about story, characters and ideas. There’s an extremely precious window of time for children to delve into the enormous wealth of children’s books – fun ones and literary ones. No child can possibly fit all the good ones in. It’s short, this magical time of childhood book reading. We certainly don’t want to speed things up.
My 10-year-old reads regularly and loves the full range of children’s books. But next year he’ll be expected to abandon a good chunk of children’s literature that is considered too easy for him. Accelerated Reader wants him to move on to books for adults and teenagers.
Choosing a book for the right age and interest level is crucial and can be a delicate art. But it needs to be tied to Thinking Level, not always reading level. Thinking Level often works best by reading aloud. When you read aloud to a child, you can introduce books that match or challenge the child’s Thinking Level. Teachers can do this with class read-aloud books. Families can do this by reading to kids who already read – kids ages 8-18.
Thinking level does not move in a straight line, always marching to a higher number. It lets kids move in circles around their emotional maturity. What delights them. What strikes them. What gives them new thoughts. What gives them pleasure.
Children desperately need pleasure reading to become lifelong readers. Let them dip into books that are supposedly below them. Once they can read independently, kids should be able to move freely within the vast treasure trove of children’s literature. If they like a book, it’s a good book. It’s an age-appropriate book. There must be no stigma in reading a book that’s “too easy.”
When kids read books we are teaching writing. That’s how children learn to frame a story. In AR, books with flat characters, such as 39 Clues, score in the same range as books with deep characters, like Charlotte’s Web.
When kids read books they learn about moral dilemmas. That’s one important way children develop ethics. Books that are fluffy and fun, (Mary Poppins; Peter Pan) score much higher in AR than books that help kids grapple with deep life issues, like mortality and discrimination (Tuck Everlasting; Sounder). Fluffy, magical books are fantastic for kids to read, but AR scores make us fixate on the number. Complex ideas are important, not just complex sentences.
The more I learn about Accelerated Reader, the more I dislike it. Remember to turn to children’s librarians and other skilled adults to guide children’s reading and book selection. Allow children to spend as much time as they can with children’s books, including picture books. No good book is too young.
Don’t accelerate reading. Wallow awhile. There’s no rush.
More renegade ideas at heathershumaker.com