Magazine article USA TODAY

Read It and Weep

Magazine article USA TODAY

Read It and Weep

Article excerpt

THE LOVE OF READING was found critically injured early this morning, the gruesome victim of an apparent attempted murder via drawing and quartering. The victim, who tended only to appear with upper class males in previous centuries, had widespread effects in Western culture, particularly after the Middle Ages. Love of Reading's charm was sufficient to induce preliterate children to pretend to read to their pets and stuffed animals, in joyful anticipation of the day when they would be full-fledged carriers of the condition. Investigators suspect that societal forces conspired against--and nearly were successful in extinguishing the last desperate flickers of--Love of Reading, after (in some cases) decades of persecution. They have identified four suspects: Lexile; whole-word reading; the dumbing down of literary form; and replacement of classics with popular literature.

"Lexile" refers to a scientific measure of the difficulty of a book and the reading ability of a particular student. It is a conundrum that Lexile has great intentions and many good effects; its relationship with Love of Reading has been one of both nurturance and abuse. Widely used in school systems to match students with books that provide a stimulating, rather than discouraging, level of challenge, Lexile may be misused, inadvertently discouraging allowing students to browse downward (it matters little to me that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn now is below my Lexile--I'm picking it up every year or so, anyway) or upward, driven by intense interest to overcome challenges of vocabulary or concept (consider a child's burning interest in some area of science, for example). Lexile also can cause some consternation among parents--who really thinks John Steinbeck's East of Eden, scored at Lexile 700, is in any way, shape, or form appropriate for bright third- or fourth-graders who may score at this level? How would you like your 10-year-old to be reading Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale?

Whole-word reading, which has been in a dynamic feud with phonics and then No Child Left Behind, has lasted sufficiently to interfere with successful reading for many. The emphasis on memorizing whole words, without understanding their component sounds or roots, often contributes to limited vocabulary development and inept dictionary use. A decent dictionary uses phonics and possibly unfamiliar words to demonstrate the pronunciation and meaning of a word. Whole-word reading also may have caused some damage to Love of Reading when listeners were exposed to the clumsy pronunciations, stilted syntax, and gaping pauses of whole-word practitioners attempting to read new material aloud. Its rival, phonics, has been able to stay above water, often through private schools, home schooling, and sneaking into No Child Left Behind's bag of approved measures via its members, phonemes.

Dumbing down of literary form has teen a chronic, creeping condition, with obvious episodes of remission. On occasion, length of tome has been substituted for quality of form, leading to self-congratulatory pleasure in reading a thick book with very little to it--as if a big, tall meringue is much more than a whisper of egg white, some sugar, and a lot of air. I do not believe that a meringue is as satisfying as a wedge of chocolate torte, and I do not believe The Clan of the Cave Bear compares to You Can't Go Home Again, however similarly they weigh. …

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