Every few months, somebody shows up at a meeting all excited about a new online reading program. The pitch goes something like this: It’s amazing! It adjusts itself to the Lexile level of each kid! And it works on a specific standard with each reading passage! It’s totally self-directed, so they complete it at their own pace! And best of all, it tracks all the data for you, so you can see how your students are progressing!
I know that data is the be-all, end-all in education these days. And there are plenty of good, self-directed online reading programs that help kids build basic reading comprehension skills. But when somebody suggests we replace class sets of novels with a bank of computers to help the kids “master the standards,” I get nervous. Data is a helpful tool, but there are a few things that are—gasp—more important than big data when it comes to reading instruction. Yes. I said it.
1. Getting lost in a book
The way kids read a passage on a computer is different from the way they read one in a book. Reading a book involves a level of sustained focus and absorption that a short passage followed by multiple choice questions cannot match. And reading fiction builds empathy and compassion in both children and adults. If kids are reading just so they can move on to the next level (or whatever the computer reading program offers), they’re motivated by extrinsic rewards. It sends the message that reading is a means to an end. That’s often true, and there’s nothing wrong with it, but if we teach that the only purpose for reading is to accomplish a task, we’re not building lifelong readers.
2. Building taste in literature
Short passages with questions at the end aren’t going to encourage a child to explore the world of reading. Online reading programs might help kids improve their multiple choice skills, but they’re not going to move them from R.L. Stine to Stephen King, or from John Green to John Steinbeck. For that, they need a guided tour of the good stuff. They need someone working with them, addressing misconceptions as they arise and asking the right questions — to help them sink their teeth into literature. And that applies to nonfiction, too, whether it’s The Glass Castle or The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Self-guided, independent work can only take you so far.
3. Enjoying quality conversations about literature
Reading is often a solo endeavor, but the enjoyment of literature can be communal. Arguing with classmates about the ending of The Giver or Life of Pi deepens students’ understanding and enjoyment of those books. When they use those “game-changing” online reading programs, I don’t see kids leaving class saying, “Did you read the passage about how baseball was invented? Wow! I couldn’t believe it!” It’s a self-contained, independent experience … not one that follows you out of the classroom and impacts your thoughts and dreams and beliefs for the rest of your life the way a good book can.
Novels are here to stay
I will try out the new program to boost kids’ reading scores. Maybe I’ll use it for a study hall activity once a week, or maybe my early finishers can give it a shot. But it won’t replace class novels in my room any time soon, no matter how much data it provides. In the end, I’d rather teach my kids than collect data about them, and I’ve yet to meet an online program that can do that for me.
What’s your take on the use of data in reading instruction? Please share in the comments.