A photo of an SRA Reading Laboratory box and contentsWhen I was in school, a long long time ago (sounds like the start of a fairy tale!), we had these Science Research Associates (SRA) reading programs that came in a box.  The box contained scores of laminated pages (like the files in a filing cabinet), each of which had a story on it with questions to answer at the end.  The idea was that you read and answer the questions, and if you did well enough, you got to go on to the next (presumably more difficult) story. It was almost like being in an assembly line – you did a ”task” (read and answer questions), then you filed the story and took out the next one, and so on, almost as if you were putting screws on widgets in a factory.  I guess that’s one of the reasons why I didn’t like doing them – I’m a poor candidate for a factory assembly line worker (I like novelty)!

Also, there was a vague sense in my belly that somehow these stories weren’t real in the same way that reading a book by an author was real.  Well before I knew how educational products were produced, I had a feeling that the text that was written on these cards was there, not because someone had a story to tell and absolutely had to get it out of his system, but because the writer wanted little schoolchildren to read them and answer the questions at the end.  It was this duplicity that I think bothered me the most, even though I couldn’t articulate it as I can now.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered that these SRA boxes are still around!  The whole program is called the SRA Reading Laboratory® and dates back to the 1950’s.  Notice how the name of the company (Science Research Associates) and the inclusion of the word ”Laboratory” on the box both promote an underlying message that these reading materials have the imprimatur of real science behind them – we get the sense of Bunsen burners and beakers and tubes with men in white coats conducting meticulous experiments and writing up their results in journals.

Students are tested and placed into a color group.  Now right away, my alarm bell is going off.  A color bar for reading?  Don’t get me started. Then students read these ”high interest” books that are ”leveled” (meaning they only have words that students, based on their testing, will be able to read – which of course prevents them from having access to words beyond their so-called ”level”).

What makes these books ”high interest”?  And how can a reading selection be ”high interest” for each and every student?  As adults we know that people have different literary tastes – some people go for romance novels, others like science fiction.  That means that some of these stories are bound to be ”low interest” for students.  And, of course, that’s when a child begins to go ”off task” and then we need to have a diagnostic label to explain why the student isn’t ”interested” in the material, so that we can blame the child and exonerate the reading program.

These reading boxes come with a lot of materials (which I assume makes them seem as if school district is getting a lot for their money).  So what’s in an SRA reading box?  You get a Teacher’s Handbook of course, to let teachers know how to run the ”laboratory.”  There are also Student Record Books for students to record their answers, correct their work, and track their scores.  I didn’t realize that part of making students love reading also involved their becoming excellent record keepers. Then you get ”Power Builders” – these are the ”files” that I remember from my childhood.  Now, they come in four-page booklets (coded of course for color) that have the story (the one on the brochure is called ”Animals in the Woods”), the comprehension questions, and a section on vocabulary and word study. An additional set of materials consists of what are called ”Rate Builders and Key Cards.”  Students are given three minutes to read a selection and answer the questions that follow.  So now reading becomes tied to speed.

I’m sorry but I just don’t like the whole drift of these ”reading boxes.” It seems to me that we can inspire children to love to read by reading wonderful literature to them, and then giving them books to read, and providing the help they need to read them.  The objective should be to let students know that reading is a key to unveiling the incredible and amazing world around us.  If you get them into all these record-keeping and speed reading sessions, I think a lot of this impetus is going to be destroyed.  And of course, this is what happens to too many kids.

I like the term someone came up with ”read-i-cide” – the killing off of the love of reading.  Children (and teens) deserve to have real books to read, and real conversations about what’s in them, not these contrived questions in booklets at the end of a reading selection (see my post on reading comprehension), ”Reading in a box” seems to me like it’s going to be an obstacle to reading for, not all, but some students (my ex-wife told me she loved doing the SRA program as a child).  It makes educators and parents feel like a lot of ”scientific” learning is going on, but in reality is just chops up the process of reading into hundreds of little bits that must be digested and then coughed out again onto answer sheets (like hair balls almost!).  I love to read – it’s a passion for me –  I but I don’t believe that reading should come in a box!

For more information about making reading a powerful learning experience for children and teens, see my book The Multiple Intelligences of Reading and Writing: Making the Words Come Alive (ASCD).

This article was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and www.institute4learning.com.

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I’m the author of 20 books including my latest, a novel called Childless, which you can order from Amazon.

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