Good books the solution

Published: Sunday, January 22, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 22, 2006 at 1:11 a.m.
Why not take the money we spend as taxpayers to prepare students for tests and spend it on good books?
Why are we surprised that test scores are not rising?
Students who score well on tests are readers, who are read to at home and in school and learn to love books. As they enjoy reading, they also pick up information about history, science and many other academic subjects in an effortless and enjoyable way.
If school administrators really want to have an impact on test scores, the answer is simple. Take the money now invested in huge programs designed to prepare students for tests and spend that money on award-winning children's and adolescent literature.
Flood the schools with these books and insist that students take home a book each night to read and share with their families. Have students keep records of what they read and systematically plan to broaden their reading interests. You will be amazed at the power of the infusion of quality literature into the lives of children.
Last year, as part of a grant, five classes of sixth-graders at Westwood Middle School were given 15 minutes a week of instruction in reading strategies in science classes and took home an award-winning book on a science topic to share with their families each week. After less than a year, these students scored significantly higher in both reading and in science than students not in the program. The grant spent only $3,000 on the library of quality literature on science topics to support the project.
It is reading at home that matters. When Margie Donnelly, kindergarten teacher at P.K. Yonge, began a nightly home reading program several years ago, she found that by the end of the year, far more kindergarten children than in previous years had actually become readers.
Unfortunately not all children in Gainesville come from families who can afford to purchase home libraries of great literature. The playing fields are not level for these children. Schools need to make sure that students have access to good books at home through home reading programs where they bring books home nightly to read and to share with their families.
Excellent programs try to ameliorate the access problem, but they can't meet the needs of all children who live in bookless homes. Project Booktalk, a collaborative program between the Children's and Youth Services Division of the Alachua County Library District and children's literature classes in the School of Teaching and Learning at UF, involves college students delivering bags of library books to subsidized child care homes. The college students conduct a library story hour with the child care provider, and then leave the books in the home for the provider to share with their children throughout the week.
Right now, more of our youngest children are being cared for outside the home, which can often result in less book reading. Group story time is very different from lap reading where each child becomes actively involved in touching the book, turning the pages, pointing to things in pictures and verbally responding to the book. Children who have had a lot of lap reading emerge naturally and easily into independent reading without a great deal of instruction from adults. All infants and toddlers deserve rich exposure to books on the lap of caring adults.
Then there is the issue of the quality of books that we provide for our children. Book publishing has followed the pattern of many industries; in the consolidation process more books have become essentially advertisements for commercial products produced by another arm of a large corporation. Thus the proliferation of books about toys and games.
Small independent book publishers only need to make a 4 percent profit to remain viable in the market. When consolidation takes place, larger corporations aim for a 14 percent profit to please their stockholders, which results in more toy and game books, series books, and pop culture books, and less quality literature from which children learn to be analytical, intelligent readers.
One good example of this switch are the Scholastic book order forms used in the Alachua County schools. Anyone reading them can see that most of the books listed for purchase are junk books or popular culture books, and rather few are award-winning literature.
Just like eating junk food, kids enjoy pop culture books, but a steady diet of those books won't glean the results that a balanced diet of quality literature will produce.
In schools today, students do very little reading from quality literature, either for pleasure or for academic reasons. Most of the time they read textbooks or mediocre books on which they are tested for points that lead to extrinsic rewards.
Real readers don't get tested on what they read. Instead they want to talk about what they have read with others who have read the same book. Look at Harry Potter - no one has to give kids brownie points for reading those books.
Each year over 7,000 children's books are published, and there are many award lists that schools can use to select the best books. Our schools need the books on the National Science Teachers' Association lists (as were purchased for the science project listed above) and the National Council of Social Studies lists. They need the Notable Books for a Global Society (from the International Reading Association), the Orbis Pictus (nonfiction books) and Notable Books in Language Arts (from the National Council of Teachers of English). To represent different cultures they can consult the Coretta Scott King, Pure Belpre and award lists.
Take inventory of your public school library to determine what percentage of the books in the collection are by minority authors or set outside the United States, for example. What percentage of the nonfiction books are award winning (not series books)?
Public school libraries need proper funding to keep up to date with the best new books that are published each year. The money spent on test preparation packages and curricula have not worked, and in the long term they never will work. It is time to fund a new teacher-empowered curriculum based upon the best of children's and young adult literature.
Linda Leonard Lamme is a professor in the College of Education at the University of Florida. She teaches courses in children's literature.

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