Children’s author Frank Cottrell Boyce, who, this week, won an award from the British national newspaper The Guardian for best fiction book for children, says that the way reading is being taught in the schools today risks putting children off of reading for the rest of their lives. In particular, he criticizes the use of standardized testing in the primary grades, saying that he himself was a problem student and would have encountered significant difficulty in making it through today’s school system:
“I learned slowly, I know other kids who haven’t read a line until they were seven, it doesn’t make any difference. What does make a difference is if on the way to reading you’ve had two years of people telling you you’re crap, you are never going to read for pleasure.”
In addition to being a children’s author, Boyce writes screenplays and also had a key role in designing the scenarios for this year’s Olympic Games in London. He observed that what made a difference for the people planning the Olympic ceremonies was drawing on literature that they had read for fun as children. “‘…we were all of us in that room drawing on stuff that we’d read as children and none of it was stuff we were examined on. If you look at the ceremony and what was in it, it was a sense of wonderment in storytelling. We found that we had this common heritage – Mary Poppins and so on.”
Boyce is specifically criticizing the British educational system, which, like the United States, has a heavy emphasis on phonics (mastering the individual sounds or phonemes of words) in early reading programs. But Boyce’s warning about the use of “task-based” reading objectives in schools is particularly relevant to the United States, given the sunami wave of “Common Core Standards,” which are currently licking the shores of America with their powerful hurricane-force winds, and which will fully hit the U.S. in 2014-15. These standards reduce the pleasurable act of reading to specific “core” skills. A second grade standard taken from the Common Core Standards, for example, requires students to:
Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text, including how characters in a story or drama respond to challenges or how the speaker in a poem reflects upon a topic; summarize the text.
Clearly, with educators putting the main focus of their teaching on mastering specific skills like this one, the idea of reading for pleasure will be lost to a generation of school children. Instead of the image of children gathered together on a rug in a library corner of the classroom excitedly reading to each other, the predominate picture of literacy instruction that is emerging in the United States is of individual students sitting at computer stations filling in electronic bubbles from standardized reading programs and tests developed by large corporations. That’s when reading stops being fun and starts being a chore, and, for many kids, it becomes “something that you’re not very good at.” Who’s going to want to read for pleasure after that?