Today’s children aren’t motivated to read. However, the same kid who seems distracted and bored and fairs poorly at reading in the classroom might very well concentrate and read a game instruction manual cover to cover with ease and energy. The solution might be to reconsider the role of traditional books and introduce alternative texts.
In the past when novelists created worlds in which books no longer existed, it was usually because those in power wanted to control the information and experiences that were shared with the less powerful. In Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451, books were used to start fires to keep the masses from being exposed to important knowledge and ideas. In The Giver by Lois Lowry, books and the collective memory they contained were kept from citizens for the sake of maintaining order. But in more recent adolescent novels, books seem to be trumped by technology and disappear due to apathy. Rodman Philbrick writes of a future world in The Last Book in the Universe in which books and reading have become obsolete replaced with mind probes to blot out reality. Similarly, MT Anderson’s Feed captures a world in which television and computers are directly connected to citizens’ brains where even school has become a copyrighted software product.
What Anderson and Philbrick have envisioned in the extreme many generations from now, many others have wondered about to a lesser degree looking toward the near future. What is the future of books and reading especially as young people turn to new media that capture their time and energy as they seek entertainment and information? What is the potential impact on schools? What are the implications for instruction in literacy programs? In the first of two articles for the Middle East Educator, let’s explore possible answers to those questions. Let’s examine a new vision of texts and readers and discuss one of the most important reasons for allowing this new vision expand the goals of classroom reading programs – to motivate even more students to find their way to books.
A New Vision of Reading
For those of us who love reading books and want to pass that love of reading on to the students with whom we work, this generation’s attraction to the new media can be somewhat troubling. It tends to disrupt what some have called the romantic vision of reading that many of us have. This vision was captured in a photograph that accompanied an article in my local newspaper on the popularity of book clubs. The picture was a group of people joyfully sitting around reading and discussing a bestselling novel. Now it was nice to read that book clubs are flourishing in my community until I quickly realized that everyone in the photo was female and no one was under the age of forty. If we do not expand our vision of reading, readers and texts beyond this romantic notion of what literacy is, we may continue to be disappointed with our ability to achieve outcomes in our reading programs. Let me offer alternative visions of reading, readers and texts, both of which took place in the back seat of my van as my sons and I were driving home.
“Dad, what does exceeds capacity mean?” I looked up in the rear view mirror to see that my son was trying to figure out a new game he had purchased for his GAMEBOY. The electronic game was based on Yu-Gi-Oh – the Japanese dueling card game. He was actually taking small identifying numbers off the cards from his real Yu-Gi-Oh deck and programming them in his GAMEBOY to build an electronic virtual deck that he could use to dual the machine. As he was inputting his card numbers, a message “exceeds capacity” popped up on his GAMEBOY screen. I told him that he must have inputted too many cards, but he told me that he was one card short of the number he was allowed to input. He then picked up a small directions manual. (Just for the record, when I examined this little 42 page manual I discovered that there wasn’t a single comprehension strategy that I couldn’t teach using the pages of that manual.) He started independently and strategically reading that manual from cover to cover trying to solve his problem. When he discovered a section called “How to Build a Deck” he read that his inputted cards could only have an aggregated total of points that did not exceed 10000. He had not exceeded the allowed total number of cards, but the cards he had inputted had exceeded the allowable aggregated total. Now I won’t even begin to identify the multiple language and mathematical skills and strategies that were involved in playing this game, but I will contrast this reading moment with what I saw once we got home. I started helping my other son with his reading homework. Even though his teacher had assigned an easy, funny and popular novel and all he had to do was read one chapter and answer a few response questions, there was no interest, initiative or independence in completing the task. The contrast with the moment in the back seat of the van was startling. I was reminded of this difference again when I had three grade seven boys riding in the back of my van a few years later. The middle boy had brought along a popular satire magazine and was reading aloud a parody of the latest Star Wars movie. After he read aloud for a few minutes, one of the other boys nudged him with his elbow and said, “I think it’s my turn to read.” He took over and continued the reading aloud until the third boy requested his turn to read as well. I did wonder at the time whether a classroom teacher could get these three boys to stay as interested and engaged in reading something for class as they were in the back seat of the van.
I am not alone in discovering by watching my own sons and their friends that while the lives of young people may not contain the romantic vision of reading, they are also not leading lives void of literacy. In our new book, Books and Beyond: New Ways to Reach Readers (Heinemann, 2006), my colleagues Michael Opitz and Matthew Zbaracki and I have argued for the use of alternative texts in instructional reading programs. We ask teachers to consider the different kinds of texts they read each day and then compare that with the number of texts they’re using with their students in reading programs. If we can convince teachers to expand the vision of reading and texts to include magazines, newspapers, book series, cartoons, comics, plays, poetry, real-life materials and cyberspace, we may start to see our students through new lenses as readers.
Making alternative texts acceptable and accessible in classrooms has six key advantages. In this article, let’s look at one of the most important reasons – to better motivate all students to be readers. Through alternative texts, we may be able to reach even more students especially those who may not see themselves in the more romantic vision of reading.
Motivating All Students to Be Readers
Motivation tops our list of reasons for using alternative texts. Research on the affective components of reading suggests that there is a complexity to the issue of motivation that defies a one-size-fits-all philosophy. In their research, Allan Wigfield and Linda Baker, identify at least seven motivational profiles of readers. First, they recognize that there are many students intrinsically motivated to read and teachers have to do very little to get books into the hands of those students. Second, they found students who have less intrinsic motivation but seem to want to please their teachers so they read whatever the teacher suggests or assigns.
The third group of students while skilled at reading, still places it low on their list of priorities. They are often students more interested in the social dimensions of their lives. The fourth group of students was motivated through competition but only if they sensed they had a real shot at winning. The fifth group of students stayed away from reading because they didn’t think they were very good at it even though they did have enough skill to read successfully. The sixth group of students disliked reading and tried to stay away from it if they could. The seventh group only differed in degree from the sixth group.
What becomes clear in looking at these pro- files is that many of the students do not see themselves in the more romantic view of reading. If we are going to reach them, we may need to consider the use of alternative texts – texts that might allow them to better see themselves as readers and for us to see them in this way as well.
As we consider the changing literate lives that this generation of students leads, we may need to reconsider the role of books in classroom reading programs. Clearly retaining a romantic view of reading where young people read and discuss the great works of our time is a worthy vision to hold on to, but we may have to rethink the way we help our students see that vision as well. In the second article in this series we will present five additional arguments for considering the valuable role that alternative texts may play in classroom reading programs. By recognizing the texts that are important in our students’ lives and finding a place for them in classrooms, we may be able to better provide our students with the skills, strategies, motivation and momentum they need to find their way to books, assuring a bright future for both.