We do a pretty good job of teaching students to read and a lousy job of getting them to read to learn. Knowing how to read is just not enough; it is the habit of reading for the pleasure of the story and the tingle of new learning that matters. (Buy the print here!)
E.D. Hirsh, Jr. writes here about the importance of knowledge to reading comprehension. He notes:
"According to the latest scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the reading achievement of eighth-graders has declined since the law was passed in 2001, and the large reading gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children -- "the achievement gap" -- has stayed where it was. Today's eighth-graders had recorded gains in fourth grade, but these have not led to improvements in later grades -- when reading scores actually count for a student's future."
He argues that the focus in K-4 on teaching kids to read works, but that the continued focus on that same topic in 5-8 produces diminishing returns. Thus, reading in middle school needs to move from "how" to "why" -- from teaching to leading.
So, why should kids read and how can we get them to read? For some, it's easy. Their character strengths of curiosity or love of learning make it easy to get them started reading to learn and they take it from there. Others may require different approaches. The principle, however, is the same. As kids find out that reading helps them gain knowledge and experience that turn their talents into strengths, they will want to read more. Twenty-five books per year, or more. Or the equivalent in news articles, magazines, etc. The key is that reading builds knowledge, and knowledge enables reading. Again, from Dr. Hirsch:
[Hmmm... those are my beliefs, but I think I've just put forth what could serve as hypotheses for research. For example, are students for whom curiosity and love of learning are top character strengths more likely to be prolific readers? Does helping students connect to reading material that enhances their strengths increase the likelihood that they will read significant amounts?]
As Dr. Hirsch points out, it is not just the ability to read that matters. It is reading! Lots of reading.
"Studies of reading comprehension show that knowing something of the topic you're reading about is the most important variable in comprehension. After a child learns to sound out words, comprehension is mostly knowledge. Many technical studies support the assertion that after students can fluently sound out words, relevant knowledge is the crucial difference between students who are good or poor readers."
So who's going to lead the effort to re-direct more time and attention in middle school to reading for knowledge and learning? Teachers, if anyone. Some will focus on making time available for students to read. Others will defend reading against ill-informed attacks. Overall, however, it's teacher led instructional improvement that offers a realistic path to sustained superior performance.