The People Who Share Their Reading Origin Stories

When I was very young, my grandfather took my book away as we were sitting companionably on the davenport, reading together. “You can’t possibly be reading that fast.”

Confused, I said, “Why not?”

“No one reads that fast. I read 600 word per minute, and you’ve flipped the page three times while I’m still on the first page.”

“But it’s a little kid book. You’re reading a big people book.”

Grandpa  read back over the previous two or three pages of The Bobbsey Twins or The Hardy Boys or whatever I was reading, quizzed me and, as he told the story for the next quarter of a century, I passed with flying colors. From that point on, Gramps was the only one of my relatives who really “got” me, understanding that living overseas left me starved of reading material. Every Christmas and birthday, where others would send me one or two books I’d devour in an hour or so, he’d send me a huge box of books chosen largely at random from the bookstore, adult-level reading books for a pre-teen and early adolescent.  Many of Grandpa’s books  built my eclectic content knowledge over the years, as my reading outpaced my age, then doubled it and beyond.

In the late sixties, increasing reading speed was all the rage (you can read fast, like the hallowed JFK!). We got tested often, in two ways. First, we’d be given a passage to read in time conditions, followed by comprehension questions. On these, I consistently clocked 1000 words per minute, probably the maximum speed on the meter, generally with 100% comprehension. Then, we were tested on tachistoscopes , which flashed a line of words on the screen or in a visor at the speed mentioned.

I hated those exercise. Hated. “That’s not how I read!” I still tested at 800 wpm or thereabouts, but it was horrible.  For the same reason, I would laugh at those idiotic Evelyn Woods speed reading commercials, because who on earth reads one word at a time? It’s so…limiting.

I believe the correct term for my early reading is Hyperlexia I–unusually bright child who happened to be an early reader.  A whole ‘nother line of thinking holds that all early readers are either visually spatially or linguistically disordered–although I have often written, of course, of my spectacularly weak spatial abilities, the description doesn’t fit me. I wouldn’t be surprised to find it’s linked, though.

No explanation for the speed, though. All authentically fast readers I’ve ever read or talked to mention some form of gulping, just as I do here in this old discussion at WestHunt.  Reading speed is linked with vocabulary (word identification), where I’ve been blowing past the 99th percentile my entire life.

I am a bit puzzled by the assertion that everyone–even I–subvocalize when reading.

Try this sentence: The bold spoken words could not sway the jury’s decision.

When I first began test prep instruction in the old SAT writing test, I constantly missed these ISE (identifying sentence errors) on adjective/adverb confusion. The question is designed to identify people who can’t hear the difference. Since  I don’t “subvocalize”, I wasn’t hearing the difference. I learned that many grammar errors are much easier to catch aurally than visually, and up until now I’d only reviewed my own writing for errors.  My eyes were fine at catching punctuation and wording mistakes, but I was vulnerable to usage mistakes that were most normally “heard”. I did not train myself to subvocalize. It was easier, for me, to train myself to spot the mistakes visually.  So while I accept the experts’ assurances that I’m subvocalizing, I sure don’t know when it’s happening.

I wasn’t ever terribly enamored of reading aloud to my son, who wasn’t a huge fan of it either. Movies were our bonding activity, from the time he was eighteen months old and beyond. Movies and Star Trek–before he was 2, he was making phaser noises and firing a water wand. His friends to this day marvel at his encyclopedic film knowledge. But while I was reading at three, he showed no interest in reading until the video game “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego” came out right after his sixth birthday. I refused to stand over the computer and read to him, so he informed his kindergarten teacher he had to learn how to read. Mission accomplished in a couple weeks. Within a few months, he had reading scores may not have been as high as mine, but were in the same ballpark, and much later scored a perfect 36 on the ACT.  He never read for pleasure save Harry Potter (he was from the original age group).  I’d long since stopped giving him piles of books, having figured this out (I’m not a nagger) but on impulse  I gave him some of my favorites for his 17th Christmas (Sewer, Gas, & Electric, Mark of the Horse Lord, Ender’s Game, Moon is a Harsh Mistress).  The books weren’t touched until we went on a long road trip in the era before smartphones, and he grabbed a few. I’d chosen well, and he became an enthusiastic reader during college, ripping through my extensive library and building his own favorites. Today he tracks his reading on goodreads. He reads quickly for a mere mortal, but nothing approaching my numbers.

I should mention that my dad, mother, aunt, and grandmother enjoy (or enjoyed) reading, mostly bestsellers (romance and spy novels, mostly) with a lexile level of, say, 800L.

**************************************************************

So a working class kid developed mad reading skillz at the age of three and a PhD level vocabulary by middle school, despite working class parents and pulp fiction content, has a son who develops wowza reading comprehension and vocabulary despite never reading much and rarely being read to–and having parents who divorced when he was two.

Tales like mine often lead others to gasp and share their origin stories. “Oh, I loved to be read to. Here are my favorite stories. What were your favorite stories?” They will build lists of books that oh, if only other parents would share with their children, if only teachers would understand the beauty, the transformative power of these books, then the world would be so much different. How can parents be so cruel? And uneducated parents, if only they understood how they are crippling their children, they’d take them to the library.

“Oh, but my mom was a Serbian immigrant who never went past sixth grade and every week she took us to the library! That’s how I was able to do so well. All these parents could do the same thing. The library is free!”

“But no, these parents are working two jobs. That’s why teachers are so important. That’s why curriculum is so important, to help these children catch up and know what their peers know.”

Education reformers sneer at “cultural deficit thinking“. Those failing teachers in failing schools argue that kids in poverty don’t have the same experiences as the middle class norms are simply lowing expectations to make their jobs easier–doing what’s best for them instead of what’s best for their students. Rare is the reformer who accepts that they, too, engage in deficit thinking. They consider children with low reading abilities to have deficits. These students are….not normal. The difference lies in their demands that the deficit be addressed, that with this deficit are otherwise doomed.

But tales like mine should, ideally, lead people to realize how little all  their  shibboleths matter to academic outcomes in face of the brutal thumb on the scale provided by intellect and personality.  Tales like mine should remind all those people with college educated parents and reading enriched childhoods that my abilities likely skunk theirs threefold, and that my kid’s might, too. Tales like mine should make people wonder if all their reading nostrums are a few steps up from homeopathic medicine. Reading chiropractic.

Tales like mine should, ideally, remind all those eager participants of those who aren’t in the conversation.

We do not hear from the millions who don’t fondly recall their favorite childhood books. From the people who didn’t read Playboy for the articles –who didn’t read Playboy at all. From the people who enjoy Readers Digest and TV Guide as a significant portion of their reading activity. From the people who are not tweeting lists of their favorite books, are not rhapsodizing in the comments section about the joys of reading aloud. From the people who are not asked to join in the discussion, because the people who are in the discussion can’t imagine they exist. Not really. Not past a punchline or a parent to be escaped from.

People who tell their reading origin tales could, that is, realize their perception is strangled by an almost unimaginable restriction of range.

No one really thinks of the others because these exercises are, at heart, narcissistic feel-good nonsense,  but if the non-readers of the world were to be considered, their opinions would be rejected as not only uninteresting but actively dangerous. They represent what our education policy seeks to avoid.

And so,  dear readers, spare me your origin tales. Accept, for the moment, that our education policy is not informed by the adults who don’t care to read, who can’t read well, or both.

Ask yourself  who might (just might, and I do mean that) have benefited from realistic, functional, purpose-driven reading instruction. The sort of instruction that the people who tell their reading origin tales never nead.  What education policy will help the other sixty percent or, god forbid, even more of the student population who don’t consider reading the most effective method of gathering information? How do we craft policies that will tease out motivation to build on existing skills, to make reading a useful tool for anyone, regardless of their comprehension level? How do we stop pretending that functional illiteracy is a meaningful term?

Can we craft an education policy that increases content knowledge to the level a student can absorb it, recognizing this limit differs? Can we continue to build student content knowledge gradually throughout school, again at the level they can absorb it? Or are we going to continue to have foolish expectations of assigning “challenging texts” to kids who can’t read at that level, and don’t want to, and make them hate reading even more?

In short, how do we stop from making reading a moral matter?

So if you read this tale, spare me the happy talk of your origin story. Answer those questions instead.

 

 

Advertisements

About educationrealist


21 responses to “The People Who Share Their Reading Origin Stories

  • g2-bb2c535d4a90f56b013e3d282fdc1ebb

    I like your story about how you worked with your son–finding books he’d like to read until it clicked. That’s what my father did with me. I think that children learn to read when they realize that it’s a faster way to pick up information than watching TV or a movie. But you had some questions you wanted answered:

    The question, dear readers, is this: what education policy will help the other sixty percent or, god forbid, even more of the student population who don’t consider reading the most effective method of gathering information? How do we craft policies that will tease out motivation to build on existing skills, to make reading a useful tool for anyone, regardless of their comprehension level? How do we stop pretending that functional illiteracy is a meaningful term?

    It means doing what you did for your son and what my father did for me: studying the child’s tastes and interests carefully, finding things he’ll like to read, and then taking long car trips where electronics run out of batteries and you have to read. And yes, I realize that public schools are already overstressed as it is, and that a grade school teacher probably doesn’t have time to set up a customized reading plan for a few dozen students–and never mind the high school English teacher who may have a few hundred students.

    Bluntly, instilling a love of reading is something that parents are better able to do than teachers. And many if not most parents aren’t readers themselves. So I suspect that the best that teachers can do is to rescue a few brands from the burning: keep an eye out for promising children and try to get them books that will interest them. Sort of like how a drug dealer might start out with a free sample to get someone hooked.

  • August Hurtel

    I don’t subvocalize either.

    I am a firm believer in demand driven education. What this probably means in real life is that you through ‘education policy’ out the door.

    But what it means at the student level is you figure out what the student wants to learn. Ideally, if he is reading, he is reading about something he wants to know.

    • Roger Sweeny

      I am a firm believer in demand driven education… what it means at the student level is you figure out what the student wants to learn.

      But what if what the student wants to learn is different from what the state legislature and the state department of education say (s)he is supposed to learn?

      My experience as a high school teacher tells me that students are interested in lots of things, some serious–growing up, getting a job and providing for themselves, having friends, connecting, sexually and romantically, with people they are attracted to, shopping–and some not so serious–music, video, sports, games, the whole gamut of entertainment and celebrities.

      Few have a lot of intrinsic interest in history, math, the sort of stuff you take in high school so you can take similar courses in college.

      • educationrealist

        I believe reading should be taught and practiced as a skill, not a literacy exercise. How do you decipher text to pull out the literal meaning? To a lesser extent, give kids practice in evaluating metaphor and inferences in fiction, but make it understandable and leveled.

  • plum

    “In short, how do we stop from making ‘__?__’ a moral matter?”

    When stating that “‘x’ is smarter than ‘y'” is no more objectionable or less obvious than “‘y’ is taller than ‘x’.”

    In short, when the blank-slate folks are as ridiculous and marginalized as the flat-earthers.

    No, I don’t know how to do this. Part of it is contextual. When my ancestors came to this country in 1657, I’m pretty sure physical strength and work-ethic trumped book learning. Now it doesn’t. I’d have died early then.

    No answers that are politically acceptable in the current climate, sorry.

  • purpletigerbot

    Unfortunate is the notion that everyone has to read classical, professoriate approved literature
    * Not many people enjoy it
    * Nor does it resonate

    And like EdRealist said, it is sad that people are forced to read *tough* material
    * No student shouldn’t be _forced_ to read something above their grade level -> this is a major force of frustration
    * But of course teachers should always let students try on their own
    * This forced leveling up also happens in foreign language classes
    * I imagine, aside from the most esoteric or complex material, most learning materials can be written at an 8th-grade level or below
    * I hate hate hate authors who make simple things complex via complex writing

    My background
    * I like reading stories, not authors or writing styles
    * Most authors writing styles don’t click with me
    * I like fast, short, direct
    * Hemmingway
    * Young Adult
    * Bad business books
    * Many Japanese authors
    * I refuse to/avoid grinding through books
    * I often read *gasp* Wikipedia, summaries, or SparkNotes just to be able to read a **story** instead of plow through 400 pages of writing that I can’t stand because it is apparently good for me
    * Probably started reading around kindergarten
    * Never remember struggling with reading
    * Like EdRealist’s son, interactive, educational DOS/Windows games were a likely motivator to read
    * I wouldn’t be surprised is this was the case for many bright boys born in the 80’s
    * Abhorred English classes at every level
    * Discussion, opinion based
    * Always seemed to take *feminine* approach
    * High tests scores
    * Got a perfect GRE verbal last year
    * Good grasp of high-level vocab
    * Probably stems from being addicted to online news and long form middle brow stuff than any sort book reading habit or schooling

  • Mark Roulo

    “The question, dear readers, is this: what education policy will help the other sixty percent or, god forbid, even more of the student population who don’t consider reading the most effective method of gathering information?”

    Policy? For lots of education subjects, I’m a big believer in “first, do no harm.” At a one-on-one level, I’m a big fan of trying to find reading material that a given student WANTS to read. For my son, we focused a lot on “boy books” and once we noticed that he really cared about sports, but didn’t care much about science fiction (sigh…), we arranged to have a lot more books on sports in the house. Ditto for history. But how to do this for 30 separate kids? While teaching a bunch of other subjects each year as well? I don’t know.

    I’ll observe that my son tries a lot harder for stuff he cares about. And sometimes he decides to care because he wants bragging rights more than he cares about the subject deeply (we are suffering through a statistics course right now for this very reason …). Can this be leveraged? For some kids, probably. For others … maybe not. And I can imagine that this sort of thing can turn OFF a lot of kids if they think they can’t compete (again, my son gave up participating in the local Library Summer Reading program at a young age when he decided that it was structured so that he had no real chance to “win”).

    So … duh moment here … if there is a way to either find out what a kid cares about OR make them care about something, then we’ve got a hook. I don’t know how to do this as a matter of policy (or even, in the general case, for a given random child).

    So a lot of this may just come down to: offer the kids lots of reading choices at lots of difficulty levels (we could call the storage facility for this a “library”), introduce them to a bunch of subjects and hope for the best. That’s probably not a policy, though.

    “How do we craft policies that will tease out motivation to build on existing skills, to make reading a useful tool for anyone, regardless of their comprehension level? How do we stop pretending that functional illiteracy is a meaningful term?”

    Again, policy? I don’t know. I do know that for my son (again, one-on-one) I tracked his reading along several metrics with the idea that books that pushed him a *bit* would help increase his reading skills, but that books that were too far ahead of what he could do were worse than useless. But I don’t know how much this mattered, and tracking this for 30 kids is a huge undertaking. Lexile is so simplistic as to be a bad idea for anything other than a starting point on difficulty.

    “Can we craft an education policy that increases content knowledge to the level a student can absorb it, recognizing this limit differs?”

    I’m pretty sure that we can increase the content knowledge by putting the reading difficulty at the appropriate level for a given student (David Adler’s “A Picture Book of …” series can lead to Graphic Library books from Capstone Press can lead to Landmark books can lead to Cartoon History of the World). But you won’t have an entire class reading the same thing. How does one manage this? And how does one craft a policy for this? No idea.

    “Or are we going to continue to have foolish expectations of assigning ‘challenging texts’ to kids who can’t read at that level, and don’t want to, and make them hate reading even more?”

    I’m a cynic, so I’ll bet on this.

    “In short, how do we stop from making reading a moral matter?”

    One option would be to decide what a “reasonable” minimum is (e.g. figure out a bus schedule, understand an employment application, read a job listing, mostly understand the story in “Harry Potter”, …) and just grind it out until the kids were there. Then provide the ability to go further. The idea of “we’ll get them to here, then the rest is optional” seems to have fallen by the wayside. This is what happens, of course, but it is death to speak of it.

    Failing to beat up the kids makes one a bad person (because you are GIVING UP ON THEM), so I expect the beating to continue.

  • Ben

    What education policy will help the other sixty percent or, god forbid, even more of the student population who don’t consider reading the most effective method of gathering information? How do we craft policies that will tease out motivation to build on existing skills, to make reading a useful tool for anyone, regardless of their comprehension level?

    This cannot be done as long as schools operate within the confines of economies of scale. What you are asking is for an educational policy that would meet the unique needs of students in a public school setting. But even more of a problem is that far too many people get confused when talking about equal opportunities and equal outcomes. Everyone professes to want to have equal opportunities, but so many change their stance as soon as it is their kid that didn’t get the outcome. If people really understood the difference I don’t think IDEA would exist, nor would schools operate in a general climate of litigious fear.

    BTW, I am a horribly slow reader who acknowledges subvocalization.

  • 57dimensions

    Wow, your reading speed is crazy, and I mean that in a good way. I never tested my reading speed before, but I just did now, 300 wpm. That doesn’t surprise me at all, I’ve always been a pretty voracious reader, but never an exceptionally fast one. I’m guessing that my Lexile level would be fairly high, I can’t really recall any texts that I really struggled to comprehend, although I do have to slow down my reading speed at higher levels.

    On a completely different subject, I just read your math fluency post, and wow I am definitely one of those people who is shakier with math facts but is amazing with abstract concepts. My family would tease me when it would take me a noticeable few seconds to add 15 and 8 while playing cribbage, wasn’t I supposed to be the math whiz? I definitely never knew the 12 times tables. I always think over simple addition problems because I just don’t ‘trust’ my math facts instincts, I may think 13 as soon as I hear 8+5, but I still manually add 8+2=10, 10+3=13 every time. When I was trying to teach some kids the ‘make tens’ trick they couldn’t see any use for it at all, they already had the basic addition facts memorized and ‘making tens’ seemed like completely unnecessary busy work.

    • educationrealist

      The “making tens” option is a classic case of a high cognitive ability workaround (like you) that simply won’t work for people of lower cognitive ability.

      • NewarkTFA

        Do you have any insight as to why the “making tens” option is confusing? Is it just the level of abstraction–thinking in terms of how a base-ten number system works rather than focusing only on one specific problem?

      • educationrealist

        Yes, that’s why. It’s a tool that high cognitive kids use, but it’s not really helpful. Like thinking about roots to figure out the meaning of the word. Only strong vocabulary folks can do it.

    • Jim

      I don’t have a high IQ, but I use “making tens” type tricks with addition and subtraction of big numbers as well. I also do this kind of stuff with multiplication so for example if somebody asks me to do 38 x 46, I turn it into (40 – 2)(4 + 6) in my head, which is easier and faster for me to do in my head. I doubt this works for most people though.

      Interestingly enough, I have always thought of myself as a pretty good reader in terms of reading comprehension (I’ve never really struggled with anything I’ve read; I even stuff by famously obtuse postmodernists like Pynchon pretty tractable), my long-term recall is pretty good (I can remember granular details about books I read many many years ago) and my vocab is very strong. However, I’ve never been a fast reader. In fact, I seem to clock in around 200 wpm, which apparently is an indicator of mild dyslexia. I’m not entirely surprised though; I’ve always read and retained a lot, although I always took longer than anybody else. I suspect this has something to do with working memory – my non-semantic working memory is quite bad, so I suspect my mind has trouble decoding symbols quickly

    • Powerlurker

      My mom has a story from her childhood about asking my grandfather (a Ph.D theoretical physicist) a question about her math homework involving the quadratic formula, and he told her that he never memorized the formula and would just derive it in his head whenever he needed it.

  • Ben

    Did this change since it was originally posted? If it did, was it necessary to throw chiropractic under the bus?

  • Anonitron

    That’s an interesting question. Another interesting question (and I can’t help but violate the terms of the discussion here: I was reading at a middle school level in the first grade and people used to have me guess vocab definitions out of a dictionary as a sort of parlor trick during high school) is whether the highly literate can conceive of lower level reading programs to the degree it takes to have a public policy debate. Dyslexia is a thing most people know about, and even that knowledge hasn’t made the mainstream aware that reading ability is probably innate and substantially different between individuals. Even now, it’s hard for me to conceive of how weak readers experience text (and I’ve worked as a tutor and in test prep). How are we supposed to convince parents that force feeding their children books isn’t going to make them all equally literate?

  • anonymousskimmer

    “The sort of instruction that the people who tell their reading origin tales never nead.”

    I think it’s important to teach students how to read various kinds of texts in a manner which reduces their personal boredom or distaste.

    I also think it’s important to recognize that sometimes reading is detrimental. Whether it’s because of learned bad habits or because other things need doing.

    But these points come from my origin story.

    I “subvocalize” (this means mental speech, right? I don’t do it with my vocal apparatus) and it’s annoying as hell. If I read in a manner to avoid subvocalizing I retain nothing.

    Anonitron: “is whether the highly literate can conceive of lower level reading programs to the degree it takes to have a public policy debate.”

    This is a good argument for including twice exceptional in any complex debate (and members of the hoi polloi in all school district level debates – including debates/demos on whether to buy particular curricular packages).

  • momof4

    As 8-9 year-olds, my kids (now 30-40) loved the Usborne world history series, which were thin, 8×10″ paperbacks in cartoon format but with good basic content: Early Man, First Civilizations, Egypt; Greece, Rome, Empires and Barbarians, Vikings, Explorers, etc. I showed them to my brother, who was the chairman of the history department in a 7-12 public school and he bought the appropriate ones for the lowest level kids – mostly 7-8th, IIRC. At the same time, the kids in the top group were using HS texts, and could supplement with more. Now, of course, leveled courses are verboten – one of the big reasons he took early retirement. Everyone can read Shakespeare and do precalc!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: