Friday, May 30, 2014
I'm sure almost all of you have heard about LeVar Burton's wildly successful Kickstarter to bring back Reading Rainbow. The goal was a million dollars, and by the end of day three they will probably be hitting three million.
But almost as soon as the Kickstarter was opened, The Washington Post ran an article discouraging people from donating. You might want to reconsider that donation to the Reading Rainbow Kickstarter is completely wrong-headed and, I believe, points to one of the reasons why literacy is falling and continues to fall.
The article cites PBS' reason for canceling Reading Rainbow as "no longer the best way to teach kids reading skills." In the funding crunch of decreased taxpayer money for Public Broadcasting, there also came a tragic shift in the philosophy of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting:
"The change started with the Department of Education under the Bush administration...which wanted to see a much heavier focus on the basic tools of reading — like phonics and spelling.... Research has directed programming toward phonics and reading fundamentals as the front line of the literacy fight. Reading Rainbow occupied a more luxurious space — the show operated on the assumption that kids already had basic reading skills and instead focused on fostering a love of books."
In other words, Reading Rainbow was one more casualty of No Child Left Behind.
Reading Rainbow never had the goal of teaching children to read. As quoted above, it was all about fostering a love of books, the love of narrative structure, the love of story.
It is staggering to me that such a love is now considered to be simply a "luxury." And it is appallingly short-sighted. It begs the question: "what is reading for?" And if the answer is simply, "to minimally function in the world," then it's no wonder that literacy is dropping like a stone from the sky.
Phonics and spelling never caused anyone to fall in love with stories. They never introduced anyone to new ideas or different cultures. They never expanded anyone's idea of the world. The notion that we can create a literate populous simply by teaching them phonics and "fundamentals" is absurd. Why should kids care, if there is nothing to touch their imaginations? I've spent the last half hour looking at reading materials for different grades, and they are dreadful. Grinding sheets of uninteresting story snippets followed by multiple choice "comprehension" questions. I was a kid who loved to read, and I hated--HATED--the once-a-year assessment tests that included these kinds of questions. No wonder kids who are in these programs don't see anything positive about reading. There is none of the magic or wonder of good story-telling in that kind of learning.
Are phonics and spelling important? Certainly. Learning to read depends on them. But they are not the whole of the toolbox for learning to understand story and love reading. It's like teaching someone to use a hammer, a saw, and a screwdriver, and then stepping back and thinking you've taught them to build a doghouse. They cobble together something vaguely doghouse-shaped, and you lament that the doghouse is inadequate, but assume that all that's needed is better hammer, saw, and screwdriver skills. And when that doesn't work, you spend all your resources on new methods for teaching and testing hammer, saw, and screwdriver skills, never questioning if your student is missing some other important steps in learning how to use their skills to successfully build a project.
Will Reading Rainbow's return--onto the web and mobile apps--teach children phonics and spelling? No. But it will enrich their lives with story and enthusiasm for reading and books. It will help kids learn that their basic skills are for something more than just filling out comprehension worksheets and passing tests. And for our populous to be actually literate, those things are not a luxury item.