Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Oprah's Book Club

Oprah is ducking me. While I’m a fan of her book club, and while I believe she may be, other than J.K. Rowling, the greatest proponent of reading in the last fifty years, there is one key issue she's missing. I've emailed countless times with a book recommendation to address this. Yet, she’s ducking me. Before Oprah does another Book Club episode, she needs to address basic literacy and the fact that as much 50% of her audience is "dys-fluent" in reading. Realistically, that means many people in the country, and in her audience, can’t read. They’re not illiterate, but they can’t truly read. In the field of reading instruction we’d say they’re “fake readers.” Their eyes may be able to skim the words and their brains can pronounce them, but they don’t truly comprehend what they are reading.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I encountered the phenomenon of “fake reading.” And, I’ve been teaching English for fifteen years. Sadly, there has been little discussion of the need to teach reading throughout high school and even college. In reality, most school systems teach students to "decode" in first and second grade. After that schools simply assign reading. The problem is as texts get harder and material becomes more complex, students need assistance in how to tackle the more challenging texts. Especially at the upper levels, all teachers need to teach students how to read for their class. Reading is a learning skill, not an English skill. However, most teachers simply tell students they need to “read it again” or “read it more carefully.”

Each time Oprah chooses another literary saga by an accomplished author, I groan. Not because I am opposed to the choice, but because I know statistically half of her audience will not understand the book, and many won’t finish it. That’s because they can’t read. Thus, the one book she needs to ask people in America to read is by a local Denver teacher and educational researcher named Cris Tovani. The book, based on her efforts to work with struggling readers, is called “I Read It, but I Don’t Get It.” It literally changed my life as a teacher, moving me from assigning reading to teaching it.

According to the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), 44% of high school students are “dys-fluent” in reading even when encountering grade-level, familiar text. 80% of the colleges in the United States have courses in remedial reading. That includes the Ivy League. Is it any wonder that half the kids who go to college after high school don’t finish? Currently, we are approaching a point where three quarters of high school graduates go on college. Yet, no more than 45% actually earn a degree. Thus, we have twice as many kids going on to college as we did in 1950, though the degree rates haven’t changed. Clearly, many kids are unprepared for the rigors of college, especially reading and writing. If you’re a teacher, if you’re a student, if you’re a parent, heck, if you’re a citizen of the United States who cares about the state of public education, you owe it to yourself to read Tovani’s book.

And when you’re done, do me a favor and call Oprah. She’s been ducking me.

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