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.