Thursday, 20 November 2014

The myth of "reluctance"?

I went to a professional development session the other day on motivating secondary students to read. It was a pretty good session with lots of interaction and ideas.  But it did give me pause for thought. About the premise. Yes I agree that reading is important - fundamental in fact to any kind of academic life at any level above primary school. I love an applaud meditations such as those of Alain de Botton on what literature is for (see below).  I think it interesting and noteworthy that numeric goals are being given to just how many books a student should read (20-25) in order to benefit from all these wonderful things.  And yet ...
All through the discussions I kept hearing the term "reluctant readers" - they were to be shaken up and motivated and enticed and if we just found the right "entry drug" book, the right set of incentives, the right way to monitor it all, if we showed them how important it was, how much we valued it, then hey presto! They'd go from reading 2 books to 20 books and voila!

The first thing that got me thinking was a name.  Not an idea.  The name "Lars" - a success story in this battle against reluctance.  I have a nephew called Lars.  He's Dutch. I know a couple of people called Lars who are Danish and Swedish.  And then I wondered.  Could it be that Lars was not reading 25 books in English in his English class because he was perhaps reading them in his mother tongue?  Had anyone asked him about his reading in other languages?  Did anyone care?  Because caring is important.  I know, I have two children reading in their chosen tongues, Dutch and Chinese respectively.  And it's a balancing act.  One in which you're teetering on a beam of approval - that of your English teacher on the one hand and your family and / or language tutor/teacher on the other.  And that language teacher / tutor may not even be part of your school community, so if you're too shy or to nervous or just plain don't understand that reading is reading and that all reading counts in whatever language you're reading in - well you're not going to get credit for that reading.  NOT ONCE in the entire PD session did anyone at any point mention mother tongue reading (except me to my learning partner - but she knows me, and she's one of us bilingual and multicultural types).  I looked around the room at the pretty homogenous bunch of language teachers around me and it wasn't surprising. I wonder how many of them were bilingual? Of course that is not what they'd be selected on, but, their class demographic is built up of at least 50% bi- or multi-lingual students. Why are we not talking about this? I suspect because we are not even thinking about this.

Research shows, if you're interested in it and if you want to acknowledge it, that languages at a CALP (Cognitive academic language proficiency level) scaffold and complement each other.  And if we've been doing our job correctly as parents and educators, by the time kids are in secondary school they should have a CALP level in at least one of their languages so it shouldn't matter too much which language is being read most.   But are we even thinking about this? Is it even on our teaching horizon?  
But then again, how many of our students are not at a CALP level when they enter secondary school? Even if they're mono-lingual.  With the best intentions and the best resources and all the rest, some students just don't get there. And no amount of monitoring or encouragement will get them there. It requires more.  Kids don't wake up one morning and along with acne and hormones decide to be reluctant readers. It's something that probably creeps up on them.  Mel Levine in his book "The Myth of Laziness" attempts to look behind why students do not succeed in an academic environment.  He finds labels of learning problems and then he tries to look behind those labels and to break down very specific issues that then can be worked on.  So too I think when we are confronted with a reluctant reader we need to look underneath that big label and work out where the reluctance stems from.  Is there an underling difficulty with reading? It is said that if a child is not a competent reader by Grade 3, s/he will struggle for the rest of school.  So what about our children in the expatriate environment who are snatched from their native language environment with the assumption that "they're young, they'll pick up xxx language easily" and who don't establish the competencies early on, and then may or may not get help, or may get language help when the problem is learning or learning help when the problem is language.  Who are more or less forced to drop and ignore their mother tongue at great cost in order to fit into a new environment.

Students don't just lose a language. They may shed bits of their identity along the way.  One student I spoke to was a success story by all accounts.  Rapidly rising from an EAL (English Additional language) to the mainstream English class in a year.  The picture of diligence.  But who felt in the process she'd lost her self and her voice.  And that wasn't the worst of it, the worst is that no one around her would acknowledge that her success had come at a cost and that the cost disturbed her.  As an educator one may rather be concerned when a student does not notice or express this frustration and anxiety at the apparent ease of substitution of self.

Back to reading.  I've become somewhat enamoured of late of the potential of digital storytelling as a way to allow students to reclaim their identities and voices.   How about we take the immensely successful Lizzie Bennett diaries? Celebrated as having taken the themes of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and translated them to modern time North America.  Why should we not in our schools have those themes expressed from a Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, African view point? And why just vlogging? It can be vlogging, or twitterature, or multi-media film and text and picture.   We like our "World Literature" we do.  But too often our world literature is a voice that suits a western audience.  We like our stories of China to involve the cultural revolution, of Vietnam the escape to the non-communist west, of Afghanistan something to do with boats and difficulties at the Australian border.  But what about the stories of our students who are a little like us, part of that global cosmopolitan elite, but then not quite. Where the mirror by which they reflect themselves distorts ever so slightly that it is not always perceptible. That is what we should want to hear and what as educators we have a role in eliciting.  And perhaps when that takes place our literature and our world views will be enriched.

I recently suffered through "To rise again at a decent hour" - the self-absorbed rantings of a middle aged white baseball loving north american male tinged with crazed religious passages was more than I could bear. And yet supposedly it was literature having been on the man booker long list. And had I been a student, I would be first in the "reluctant reader" line.  So a lack of identification and interest may foster reluctance.

How about time?  As an idealistic mother I so totally bought into that half hour of reading in bed before lights out.  Easy when you're doing the reading and setting the bedtime and there is no homework or after school activities that eat into the late afternoon and then munch past dinner time and gulp up the hours past the absolute latest time that you know a child should be asleep. There are always deliverables. 


There are some good things going on.   I'm really gratified to see that some teachers are setting time aside in class for reading. I hope that's working.  I hope students can read on demand.  I really like the concept of class libraries, the easy availability of books at the point of demand. I also hope we have dedicated enough budget to have that in all our language classrooms as well and to think about how we are meeting the needs of our multi-linguals.  For now just even thinking about them. Just mentioning them in a seminar or workshop would be a huge step forward.