A 2020 Literacy Strategy: From Reading Worriers to Reading Warriors

Did you, like me, spend swathes of 2019 worrying about students’ reading habits and skills? Again and again this past year we have been startled by shocking statistics:

  • Research from the Annenberg Institute at Brown University indicated that children are entering kindergarten with lower reading skills than they possessed in the past.
  • The National Assessment for Educational Progress reading scores for students in Grades 4 and 8 declined. The NAEP reported no progress in reading for any but the highest-performing students. Scores for students in the lowest group have shown no improvement in the past 30 years.
  • The ACT report, “The Condition of College and Career Readiness 2019,” found that the percentage of students meeting readiness benchmarks in reading were the lowest they have been in 15 years. Alarmingly, it is our most vulnerable students who are the least prepared.

Instead of continuing to wring our hands through another year of bad news, we must figure out how to reverse these trends. Doing more of what we have done in the past will not be enough. We need to advance from being reading worriers to reading warriors.

A researcher whose work is having an increased influence on our instructional practices is the neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf. In her book Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in the Digital World, Wolf urges us to cultivate a new kind of reading brain, a biliterate brain, capable of comprehending complex text in both print and digital formats. Our students need to be competent and confident navigators of the digital world, but their competence must not come at the expense of reflective, deep reading. Wolf explains, “Deep reading is always about connection: connecting what we know to what we read, what we read to what we feel, what we feel to what we think, and how we think to how we live our lives in a connected world.”

Maryanne Wolf’s research into the impact of the digital age on students’ reading skills should begin to inform teachers’ practice in 2020. I hope that it will help to end the print versus digital text wars and lead to more reading in both formats.

The National Council of Teachers of English has recently published a position paper urging teachers to make time for students’ independent reading and to stimulate broader choice in what they read. Teachers have the unique power through their knowledge of literature and their relationships with students to encourage, to stimulate, and to guide. Reading builds students’ capacity for empathy.

I would hope that we begin to see in 2020 more attention being paid to the development of independence in readers. Nurturing natural literacy will entail:

  • Demonstrating how to choose books
  • Conducting reading conferences
  • Promoting student-to-student book talks
  • Encouraging students to reflect upon their own reading habits

I further predict that school and classroom libraries will increase their stock of contemporary, diverse books—fiction and nonfiction works that encourage children to read more, not solely for the purpose of raising their reading scores but, more importantly, to discover stories that stimulate that minds. One such recently published book for middle-grade readers is The Last Last-Day-of-Summer by Lamar Giles. In this delightful story, two cousins accidentally freeze time, thus extending the last days of summer and leading to perilous adventures. It was one of Time magazine’s best books of the year.

The Last Last-Day-of-Summer was published by Versify, a new imprint under the direction of Kwame Alexander, author of the Newbery Medal-winning novel The Crossover and an accomplished reading warrior. Versify’s stated goal is to bring into the world books that “engage, entertain, and empower young people to imagine and create a better world.” Other titles in the Versify series include The Undefeated illustrated by Kadir Nelson and written by Kwame Alexander (long-listed for the 2019 National Book Award); Emmy in the Key of Code by Aimee Lucido; and White Rose by Kip Wilson based upon the true story of Sophie Scholl, a member of the Weisse Rose resistance group whose members challenged Hitler and paid with their lives.

I predict that, as more books of this style and substance find their way into children’s hands, we will see students reading more. And when students read more their fluency improves, their vocabulary increases, and best of all, they begin to think of themselves as readers.

In 2020, we should shift at least part of our concern from scores to students and fight harder to inspire and help students carve out time to read.

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