One Bite at a Time
A note for teachers and parents
California state literacy guidelines (grades eight through twelve) call for students to
read and understand grade-level material, and to consume it at the rate of between one- and two-million words
per year, on their own (meaning, in addition to what they get in the classroom).
The mere mention of those numbers can be overwhelming. Tell a person that s/he has
to do one- to two-million of ANYTHING, and you will meet with someone gasping with breath, running for cover, or simply slack-jawed
in shock. But when asked by my students, "How on earth do I read two million words?" I am always reminded
of the children's riddle, "How do you eat an elephant?"
"One bite at a time."
Typically, age-appropriate reading books for teenagers are about 150,000 words
(on average). So a good "rule of thumb" for independent student reading is about one book every two weeks during
the school year, in order to get to the two-million-words-a-year breakpoint.
Obviously, some students will be interested in reading less challenging books if
left to their own devices. There are high school students who will make teachers grind their teeth (or even rip out
thinning hair) by asking for permission to do a book report on Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants
(very funny, but a cartoon book and written for second graders). But some will instantly pick up Tolstoy's thickest
tomes, or the collected works of Dickens.
So, the idea NO MATTER WHAT, is to give the student as much free reign as possible
in choosing "free reading" material. It is fair to give direction and encouragement, and some motivation to try new
things, but the overarching big idea here is that the student gets to read for enjoyment, and people can't possibly read for
enjoyment when they're being constantly hounded and hectored that they should be doing something else.
ACCOUNTABILITY -- Where book reports come in
Despite the glory of this generous ideal, "free reading," students
really are expected to chow down on at least one whole book every two weeks in pursuit of this state-mandated goal of wolfing
down one- to two-million words, on their own, every year.
There are several ways to make students accountable for their reading. The
method students like the most is 1) ASKING. We ask "Did you read a book?" They say, "Yes!" This method
is quick and painless, but it leads to little thought or literary analysis. Regrettably, it also leads to a lot of lying
and very little actual student reading. This led teachers to institute a second method --
Reading logs are charts where students indicate that they have read for half an
hour a night, and parents initial it, indicating that they agree that the student sat far away from them under a light source
for half an hour. The completed charts are turned in every month. Teachers are loathe to contradict parent signatures,
but the process still yields little literary analysis, and a lot of student lying and very little actual student reading.
This brings us back to the classic teacher method of requiring ....
Book reports. These yield probems too -- Sometimes a lot of cut and paste
(when the teacher doesn't require a specific outline, though I do), and sometimes the possibility that the student is reporting
on a book s/he read a long time ago. But overall, this is still the best method I have of ensuring that a student actually
reads, and actually engages in some kind of thinking of the reading that s/he has done. And that is what this site and
the following pages are about.