12 Feb 2010

Reading like a grownup

Yep, that's Marilyn Monroe. The blonde. She's a beautiful woman, isn't she? Yes, you're right again - she's reading James Joyce's Ulysses. Have you ever tried to read Ulysses? I have. I've never finished it though. Ulysses is difficult - have a look at it here, if you want. The book totals about 265,000 words from a vocabulary of 30,030 words - including proper names, plurals and various verb tenses. Despite this, it is regularly included in lists of great books. Ulysses is a classic. One day I shall read it.

I put this photo here because Marilyn is often dismissed as being a dumb dizzy blonde. Which make me think I should tell a blonde joke, except that being able to read Ulysses is not a joke. Clearly, Marilyn read like an adult. Better than many adults.

Last week my good friend Susan the Book Chook, an ex kindergarten teacher and passionate advocate for children's literacy wrote a post on her blog about whether we should be encouraging reluctant readers to read books at their grade level or whether it is okay for them to read easier books provided they're enjoying the experience. Pop over and have a read. Go on - I'll be here when you finish...

Clearly Susan and her many erudite colleague commenters feel that it is more important that a reluctant reader enjoy reading easy books than it is to have her reading books at her 'appropriate' grade level. I agree with her. To me the battle we have is not to teach our children the mechanics of reading but rather to give to our children the love of reading that will follow them throughout their school years and into adulthood and beyond. It is so exciting when a child catches the 'reading bug'. To prevent a reluctant reader from reading the books that she enjoys would be lunacy...in my humble opinion.

That's all very well, as far as it goes. But is it okay for children to continue to read below their grade level? The Book Chook points out that as adults we often do. We're reading Alice in Wonderland at the moment. Charlotte Sometimes, Swallows and Amazons and Mistress Masham's Repose as well. Now these are all fantastic books, and I am enjoying them very much, but they are Jemimah's reading level. They're not adult level books. Take a look at this list of classic books and total how many you've read in each of the three lists. How did you do? Have you, like me, read far more of the Children's and Young Teens' list than the Adult list? Does this matter?

To me it doesn't, but the reason it doesn't matter to me is that despite the fact that I often read and enjoy children's books, if I want to read an adult book I can. I can read anything I want to.

Clearly Marilyn could too, and that's what I want for my daughter.

Sadly there are children and adults who will always struggle to read for one reason or another. These people will never be able to read Ulysses. For most of them that won't matter a bit. Provided you can read the newspaper, use a bus schedule and understand health related information you'll get through life just fine. The concerning thing though, is that according to the 2006 Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey, only 54% of Australians can. Does this matter?

To me it does. It matters a lot.

To me it means that we do need to encourage our children to reach their appropriate grade reading level because if they never reach that level they'll never reach adult literacy, and according to the ABS survey that translated into a median weekly income of $298 for people assessed at the lowest level compared to $890 a week for those with the highest level of prose literacy. Now I know that's mercenary, but I chose that indicator because it's measurable and it shows us one thing - being able to read well as an adult matters.

Back to reading grade levels. They're not arbitrary, they're not. Grade levels are there because they're an indicator of what an average child is able to read at a particular stage. If your child is not there yet it doesn't matter. What does matter, I believe, is aiming to get him as close to that level as you can.

How do you learn to read better? By reading more books. Remember the 95% rule? I spoke about it in a post recently and you can read about it in Ruth Beechick's A Home Start in Reading. The 95% rule that says that a child should be able to read 95% of the words on a page with ease for him to enjoy it. How do you discover this? By counting! Count 100 words. If there are more than five that the child doesn't know then the book is probably too difficult for independent reading. Works for adults too, by the way. Most of the books your child reads - say 80% - should be at this level - even if it is below his grade level. These are the books that he will enjoy reading, and that will build his confidence as well as his reading skills. We want our kids to learn to love reading and it is independent reading that will help them to do that.

To improve reading, though I also encourage Jemimah to read books on her instructional reading level - one where she'll miss say 5-8 words per hundred. These are the ones she reads aloud to me so that I can help her not to get too irritated when she encounters difficulties. Reviewing vocabulary helps with these books as does narration after each chapter. We read instructional books each day as part of school work.

I believe a child should never be made to read a book that is on his frustration level. If that is his grade level then he shouldn't be reading at that level...yet.

So that's my opinion. Does that mean I disagree with the Book Chook? Yes? No? Maybe? Do you disagree with me perhaps? Clearly many of the Chook's commenters would. Hopefully though, many of them would also agree with me, because I think we're on the same page. We all want our kids to enjoy reading - now and into the future. If the books they need to achieve this are below grade level well so be it. It's just that I want to encourage you to keep aiming for that level. Because eventually I want my child to be able to read Ulysses. I want her to read like a grown up. Just like Marilyn Monroe.

Which brings me back to that blonde joke:
Two gorgeous blondes were walking home form a party one night. One blonde turns to the other and says, "Which one's closer - London or the moon?" "Duh," says the other scathingly, "Duh. Can you see London from here?"

To informally assess your child's reading level try this. I keep this in my Homeschooling Folder (which I'll share with you one day!) and test Jemimah once a blue moon just to ensure that things are on track.


  1. Jeannie: I struggle with things like *classics lists*. See I've read about on par across all 3 groups ~ or at least something by all the authors listed ~ but have you ever tried to read Kourac's On The Road? It can't be done. The man used no punctuation whatsoever. I tried, putting in the punction as I went, but it seriously wasn't worth the effort. I did far better with The Brothers Karamazov, which I don't think is a particularly easy book; but *I* enjoyed it. Then there are the authors I just can't stand. Hemingway & steinbeck are both in that catagory for me. I don't think they have anything to say to most women. In Hemingway's case at least, he had little use for women & it shows in a lack of deep characterisation. The older I get the less I worry about what other people consider *must reads* ~ but then I know I can read whatever I like. I have that ability. Ditz will have. It's just she's like her mum & doesn't see why she should persist with something she really doesn't like. Enjoyment first. Someone who reads widely for pleasure usually has the vocab & grammatical structure for the more difficult authors.

  2. Ha! I agree with you! So many adult books are far too grown up for me!! I must say I enjoy reading an adult book a month as part of book club, but apart from that I'll just keep on reading my children's classics. The thing is, if I want to read adult books, I can. That's all. It is an interesting distinction.

  3. Thanks for the links Jeanne...I totally want my children to 'enjoy' what they are reading!


  4. Hi Jeanne! Excellent post that got me pondering. I agree that the goal is to raise our children to be readers. However, I got a different feel from your post than I did from the Book Chook's post. There seemed more of a "let them read what they will!" philosophy in the latter and the readers' responses. Sure, I'm all for a little twaddle now and then, just like I'm all for a little slice of dark chocolate cake with ganache -- but not all the time. I tend to agree more with C.S. Lewis's point that no book is really worth reading at age ten which is not equally worth reading at age fifty.

    Regarding adult "classics": these ARE works that have stood the test of time (what a pedantic phrase), but that doesn't mean a person has to like all of them! Each of us has our personal tastes. If I never read anything by Hemingway ever again, it will be too soon for me.

  5. Well, I think we ARE on the same page. My remarks were mostly about the letter from a mom who was talking about her child's home as opposed to school reading. I truly don't think a child's home reading for pleasure needs to be at grade level.

    I am fairly sure my definition of "twaddle" would be broader than some, but probably narrower than others. The great thing is, we all want what we see as best for our kids.

    The other great thing is that we can meet in cyberspace and discuss these things, agree perhaps to disagree, and continue to learn and educate.

  6. It's so important to draw attention to reading, and attract reluctant readers to it,especially boys. In fact, I've recently completed a feature magazine article on this subject that came out in October, "Help for Struggling, Reluctant Readers."

    I grew up as a reluctant reader, in spite of the fact that my father published over 70 books. Now I write action-adventures & mysteries, especially for tween boys, that avid boy readers and girls enjoy just as much.

    My blog, Books for Boys http://booksandboys.blogspot.com is dedicated to drawing attention to the importance of reading. And my new book, Lost Island Smugglers - first in the Sam Butler Adventure Series - is coming out in June.

    Keep up your good work.

    Max Elliot Anderson

  7. That's a pretty good rule of thumb--unless you're a geek like my friends and I were and love the dictionary! My son is in high school, but reads far below that, although doing much more reading IS helping. I love to watch little children have that great Wow! moment when they read their first "big" book. I remember a little cousin being told to turn her light out--tears flowing freely. Her Mom asked what was wrong. Clutching "King of the Wind" to her chest she said "that was SUCH a great book!" I know Jemima will be THAT kind of reader!

  8. Jeanne: I apologise. Your name seems to have acquired an extra i somewhere along the way. I can only say I'm a little off the air just now. Sorrow.

  9. hmmmm.
    Great food for thought Jeanne:)
    Thanks for all the links too esp the one with the word lists:)

  10. I'm glad I did jump over to Book Chook's blog and I found her answer encouraging and kind to that mother's particular question.

    You (and comments on both blogs) do bring up many matters that are much deeper. Quickly, or not,

    I do believe that the words we take into ourselves help shape us.

    In the US we have seen for many years now the power of the retailer over the publisher increasingly determining what is being published.

    What is a "reluctant reader" and how much screen time are they getting? As a former bookseller, I had high school teachers purchasing picture books for their classes because the students had no attention spans. Yikes. Thankfully, they were beautifully written and illustrated picture books and not potty-humour or movies repackaged in book form.

    Enough, Richele.

  11. Hi Jeanne,
    Thank you for sharing - Marilyn Monroe was always portrayed as a dumb blonde, but that is obviously not the case.

    There is some excellent reading on the booklist - hmm, I feel a spending spree coming on. :P

    Have a great weekend,

  12. great post on reading, and i completely agree. i
    homeschooled all five of our chidren, and they are
    all great readers.

    they didn't all start out that way. i let the strugglers
    read at their level until they gained confidence. it
    really worked.

    we also required our kids to read a lot. no tv (except
    for 30 minutes in the afternoon). they could nap
    or read after lunch.

    in the summers: equal reading/tv time. they got
    to choose.

  13. This is a great post.
    I found my boy was reading well below his level over the last year but he seemed to somewhat fear the 'novel'. He was enjoying books that he could read in an hour or two. This year we decided to enrol in a distance ed school and the teacher encouraged my boy - it seems a little encouragement from someone he didn't know was all it took.
    I would rather him happily reading than me pushing him. But it is good to see him moving on as well.


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