Encouraging a Love of Reading in a Culture of Assessment

[SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t read or seen the whole Harry Potter series and you plan to, stop here!]

For months last year, my son listened avidly as I read him J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, sometimes requesting we begin the next book immediately at the close of the previous one. Finally, in August, as the fan whirred and Felix rested his head on my chest, we reached that penultimate point when Harry walks through the Forbidden Forest to sacrifice himself to the Dark Lord, Voldemort. Terrified, Harry finds the loving ghosts of his parents and mentors accompanying him, providing him comfort and support.

As I read, my voiced thickened. I had already read this chapter years ago, long before thinking I’d ever be a dad, but had forgotten all about it. Now, the emotions—a child asking for assurance, parents who wish they could do something but can only offer words—resonated. When the spirit of his father tells Harry he’ll be with him “until the very end,” I cried. I mean I really cried. I ugly cried.

Felix, taken aback by how upset I was, gave me a tissue then patted my hand. “It’s going to be ok,” he told me, playing the role of parent.

The next morning, over breakfast, I asked him if that part made him feel as sad as it did me. It didn’t. “He’s the hero, so he’ll have a happy ending.”

“Maybe,” I said, impressed at how well he already picked up the conventions of hero tales, but dismayed that he couldn’t appreciate the bittersweet sorrow of the moment. “But this part is pretty sad, right?”

He shrugged. “I just want to find out how he kills Voldemort!”

As I’d read him the series, book after book, I noticed how arriving at the end seemed to make a greater impact than the journey itself. Not because he didn’t like the story but because he really liked the feeling of completion and moving ahead, ticking the titles off one by one. A similar thing happens when Felix is doing his own reading. His teacher asks that Felix reads for thirty minutes every evening. Sometimes, he’ll shut the book mid-sentence when the allotted time is up. The quantifiable goal – reaching the last page, or the final minute – provides more pleasure than the text itself.

For a while, I thought that this was a quirk of Felix’s personality. He loves schedules and lists, crossing things off and getting things done. Then I realized that the culture of the school played a part as well. He’s in second grade, and since kindergarten, has been very aware of his “reading level,” which is measured, appropriately enough, by letters instead of numbers. The further along in the alphabet a student is, the better she or he is at reading, according to the school’s rubric, anyway. Reading levels are made very public, so Felix not only knows that he’s a level L or M or whatever, he knows that his friends are either above or below him. For an observant, quiet kid like Felix, this has had some profound effects on how he approaches reading.

Whether intentionally or not, the practice of leveling students’ reading encourages our children to see themselves in relationship to their peers in a kind of competition. They can also imagine that there’s an end point, a final goal, a reading level Z to reach at which point they’ll  have “mastered” reading. Any lover of literacy knows that isn’t the case—we all turn to the dictionary every now and then and read things which challenge us intellectually or emotionally; reading is a lifelong journey, not a destination. Imagining it an activity with levels makes it yet another academic hoop through which a student must leap, and implies that getting better at reading is more important than the act of reading itself. This is a hollow kind of joy. It’s also one that can be put aside, like long division, when the unit is done and school closes shop for the summer. Instead of creating a habit of mind, the leveling system makes reading a chore to strike from the list of to-dos.

What’s more, Felix, like many quiet kids, tends to be hypersensitive about his abilities, particularly when he feels like he’s performing for an audience. His teacher assesses his reading level by having him read aloud and then quizzing his comprehension, and he seems to think that every time my wife and I ask about his reading we’re doing something similar. He clams up, becomes self-conscious. Reading, a great love for us, seems fraught for him; his bookshelf is a minefield for his self-esteem. For example, after reading my wife a book before bedtime a few nights ago, she told him that he reads very well.

He replied, “That’s what people tell me, but I don’t think I do. There are kids in my class who read so much better than I do. I’m just ok.”

Combatting this sentiment is tough, because it feels like the school has given him data to support it. Also, we tell him to heed and respect his teachers, and he hears them encouraging him to improve his level, which he interprets as a criticism. The larger problem is more insidious and difficult to explain to a seven-year-old, and it’s one I struggle with even as a sensitive, introverted adult. Our culture is obsessed with quantification, and our success is nearly always measured in comparison to others. Reading levels are not much different than social media stats, in a way. They encourage us to focus on how others assess our performance, and not on our experience of performing itself. Even my word choice feels corrupted by this measurement – I just described the act of being social online as performing, the same way my son sees reading aloud as a form of performing. If only we could just be, without feeling self-conscious!

So what is to be done when you’ve got an introverted emerging reader struggling to feel confident in what feels like the high-stakes world of books? I’ve done a few things that have helped.

First, I turned off the timer when he reads. Instead, of having him read for thirty minutes, I tell him to read as much as feels right – a chapter, say, or maybe two, or maybe even more if he’s loving the book.

Then, rather than doing chores while he reads, or surfing the Internet, I’ll open up a book beside him. I try not to look at my phone or manage my time, I give myself permission to sink into the story.

Finally, I reject the language of the school, which asks he finds “just right” books [aka books on his teacher-assessed reading level], and instead tell him to find something that he likes. Sometimes that’s a novel, other times it’s a comic book, or even a picture book. We don’t always need to push ourselves to be reading harder and harder things, sometimes we can just enjoy a good tale or re-read an old favorite.

And of course we make sure to have plenty of narrative fiction and nonfiction around the house for him to choose from – some from our favorite neighborhood used bookstore, others from the library, and still others that he brings home in his book baggy. Having a word-rich environment with a lot of options is key, I think, so that he can find the books that speak to him.

Yesterday afternoon, Felix and I sat together on the couch, listening to ambient music and reading, for almost an hour. Afterward, we talked for a little bit about his book – Beverly Cleary’s Ramona the Brave – which I remember loving and reading several times as a kid. He likes how pesky Ramona is, and how she and her sister Beezus get into fights all the time. “That was really nice,” I told him. “Just sitting here, you in your book, me in mine.”

He agreed, and a bright smile flashed across his face. That unguarded expression, more than any grade, score, or level, was a beautiful reflection of something true—though what that truth was, exactly, I don’t care to pin down. Love of books, of companionship, of entering a story for a little while and enjoying the world an author created out of words? Perhaps.

Or maybe he recognized that the silence between us wasn’t silence at all, but the sound of two minds humming their own tunes in tandem, a vibration felt more than heard. We were a duet that required no words to pass between us, just the presence of our imaginations in close proximity. That’s not something taught in school or able to be measured, but it’s a wonderful part of being human—creatures made as much of imagination as of skin and bone.

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  • Allison Kerns

    I cannot cheer this article on enough!!! My heart actually started racing as you talked about the teacher assessing reading with out loud reading activities. I have such strong memories of the horror that those out loud reading tests caused me as a kid. I would freeze up, and stutter, and have such a hard time. I was always the kid two or three reading levels bellow the rest of the class. Though if someone would read to me I loved it, and my comprehension was spot on. Reading assessments were done in front of the entire class so I would be embarrassed and get teased for my reading. This fueled my idea that I was bad at reading. Because I was bad at reading, I didn’t enjoy reading. So I didn’t read unless forced to… and so on. Until someone gave me an adventure book with no reading level on the back and a judgement free space to read it in. I haven’t stopped reading since! I want every teacher I know, and whoever instituted those reading levels, to read this article!

  • Jennifer Nash

    I love the article! It makes me wonder what would happen instead if schools fostered a love of reading rather than a competitive environment where one might or might not read “the right way.” I might argue that if children love to read, and they read often, then the more “assessment” based abilities will come naturally in their own time. Thank you for your tips to help foster a love of reading. I haven’t been timing my oldest’s required reading time for awhile, and he often reads for longer than required. I do love the idea of reading with him during his reading time, though. I’m always trying to sneak some more reading time out of my day and maybe it will encourage my youngest (who is not quite at reading age) to join in the fun with a picture book!

  • leslie steeves

    Excellent article! Every elementary teacher should be required to read and seriously consider your thoughts.
    The school I work at has recently implemented these “reading assessments” and I am struggling to accept them. I have seen firsthand many of your observations and I am dismayed by the “reading” these evaluations bring about. Reading for enjoyment, reading that gives moments of wonder or even reading as a hobby, is lost. Instead the reading is controlled, calculated and monitored (for improvement only). The children seem hesitant to pick up a book and read – just to read. They rely on the teacher to guide them. In short these reading evaluations do not serve the child. Which asks the question – whom do they serve?
    I applaud you, Mr. Gresko, for using your introverted insight to see beyond the razzle-dazzle of these reading evaluations. Your concern and recognition that young introverts may be sensitive to the performance required during the evaluation is valid and the competition of levels among students, only adds to their stress.
    Your solutions are simple and clever. They will lead your son to appreciate and explore books. There is one other solution – the Montessori Method. Maria Montessori outlined in detail her expectations for what child needs to reach what she called “total reading”. And her one goal – enjoyment of reading – is first on my list. Unfortunately many Montessori schools are also pressured to adopt these reading evaluations and are quick to abandon Montessori’s ideals.
    I hope you will step away from your “sensitive, introverted” self and let your voice be heard to your son’s teacher and other educators. Speaking as a caring father, your words have great value.
    Remember – we must be bold because it is through our introverted ways that we see the big picture and our views are particularly respectful to the emotions involved. The world needs our input.

  • I adored this article as a parent and as a children’s book author. Brian, I think the way you have chosen to handle this and they deep way in which you’ve thought about it are spot-on – bravo. Your son is lucky to have you as a father. I plan to share this with fellow writers who want nothing more than for kids to get happily lost in their books, and fellow parents who want to encourage reading as a lifelong joy and not a race to reach “Z”

  • Candi Barr

    What a great read! I remember, as a quiet, introspective and somewhat secretive kid, loving reading. It was my friend, my escape, and my confidante. When everything else seemed like judgment, display, and competition, reading was my own. It was the one thing I loved and I knew – I mean KNEW – I was good at. It was the one thing about me that I felt was impervious to criticism or doubt from any quarter or anyone.

    I believe this started with my ever-patient grandma who must have read “The Saggy Baggy Elephant” to me a gazillion times. She never said no when I asked. Not once. I still treasure those memories to this day. And, I was tested as reading at college level when I was in the eighth grade. Hardly a coincidence.

    Your son will treasure the memories you are creating with him, and believe me, you are instilling very important confidence in him as well.

    Good job, and wonderful story.

  • What a great piece. I love how you turned the reading of books from an assessment thing to just being immersed in the book. I’ve been an avid reader from a young age – reading everything I could find on our bookshelves, even ‘unsuitable’ books – and I recognise the magic that happens when you’re immersed in a story. Being transported to exotic places, with heroes and wizards and people you identify with, is part of the wonderful learning experience of reading. And reading to, and with your son is the best grounding for lifelong learning and reading. Wonderful!

  • Debbie Anderson

    What a nice article for today. I have been a lover of books since I was born I think. Reading and library time were encouraged in my home as a child, and even back then we were assessed with reading levels. I was a shy, introverted child. In the 3rd grade I remember my teacher giving me the 6th grade Horizons (the supplimentary reader) because I had read through everything else! I probably should have been spending more time on math, but oh how I love getting lost in a book.

    When raising my own (now young adult) children, my daughter was like me and read everything in sight. She was reading adult books by middle school, some of which were a little too “mature”, she laughed and said I just skip over those parts mom! My son, diagnosed as an adult with high-functioning autism finds reading more of a struggle. He likes to read, but reads very slowly (but also has very high comprehension). In grade school when he found non fiction that helped, and now he enjoys sci-fi. I just hope as he grows older he continues to read, we encourage (and model) recreational reading.

    I pray that we will always have libraries, used book stores and book swaps so that all can have the opportunity to get lost in a book!

  • Julie Hill

    That last paragraph really touched me. Thank you for the great piece!