The recipe for success?

8 Oct

The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results for 2009 were announced earlier this week. They do assessments on the education systems in countries, based on reading, mathematical skill and scientific literacy. Schools from participating countries are randomly selected and a pencil-and-paper test is administered to students. Although I am not an advocate for testing, it has some use when comparing education systems. A number of interesting findings arose, which can be read in on the OECD’s website. I am particularly interested in the reading results, because I view reading as pivotal to success.
With the regards to reading, the PISA results show that:
* Girls read better than boys and their reading level is on average one year better than that of boys .
* Good discipline and good student-teacher relations are positive factors in good reading results.
* 64% of all students stated that they read for pleasure (down from 69% in 2000).

Even though the decline in reading for enjoyment is a cause for worry, I was encouraged by the percentage of children reading for pleasure. Today, kids are faced with countless electronic devices that could have a potential negative impact on their time spent reading a book. (The PISA study did not gather any information on the actual time student spent on reading for pleasure, they only tested reading proficiency.) When my generation was growing up, we only had TV and rudimentary video games competing with books. Now, kids are surrounded by numerous technologies, all of them with a powerful attraction. According to a study quoted in The New York Times (2010/11/21), young people’s brains are more vulnerable to being habituated to “constantly switch tasks” and therefore being “less able to sustain attention”. A natural consequence is, of course, not being able to focus long enough to enjoy reading a book. Maybe one can speculate that this is one of the reasons for the decline in the percentage of students reading for pleasure?

As parents and teachers we should be actively seeking solutions to help students find a balance between reading books and using electronic media. The time has long since passed where we could advocate the prohibition of electronic media. Being old-fashioned, I would have liked to raise my kids blissfully unplugged. But one cannot live in the past… Our best chance of producing proficient readers, is to read (and read and read some more).

As a young parent more than a decade ago, I came across Jim Trelease’s “The Read-Aloud Handbook” (Penguin Books). This book inspired me to read to my children every day, and I vowed to keep on doing this until they would prefer to only read on their own. Although my youngest son (10 years old) is an excellent reader, he still likes our time alone every night, reading aloud. Trelease sites experts who studied children’s listening skills, who asserted that children’s reading and listening skills only converge by the eighth grade. This does not necessarily mean that you should read aloud to your 14-year old teenager; but it does put some perspective on the age limit we choose to stop reading aloud to our children. Most people assume that by the third or fourth grade reading aloud can be abandoned because children can read successfully on their own. But in reality, we are depriving children of a much richer listening experience, because their reading skills have not caught up with their listening skills. The New York Times (2010/03/21) relates the heart-warming tale of a father who read aloud to his daughter until her first day in college. It started out as a 100-day reading streak challenge, and ended up as 3218 days of reading aloud without missing a single day!

Remember, we do not have to give our children reading instruction – just simply read aloud to them! If we give them the basics of a positive experience, a rich vocabulary and a love of stories, they will experience few problems once they start formal reading instruction in school. (Interestingly, Finland, who scores consistently high on the PISA tests, only starts formal reading instruction at age 7.)

Parents should also keep in mind the powerful role of modeling the act of reading. It is a bit far-fetched to expect children to love reading and spend time with books when the parents are constantly glued to their computer screens and i-phones. Teenagers are particularly perceptive about hypocritical behavior. Preaching a balance between books and electronics will certainly be met with criticism if  we do not practice what we preach!

The evidence for the importance of a high reading proficiency is clear. A number of studies in reading have shown that good reading skills correlate with overall academic success, as well as with a higher income level. Conversely, a low level of literacy is linked to lower socio-economic status. A recent longitudinal study over a period of 53 years (published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior) even indicates that students with better grades in school are healthier than their counterparts later in life.

A love for reading is a key that enables children and young adults to unlock a world of opportunities. If we could instill in our children the love for reading and help them to negotiate a balance between books and electronics, the battle towards success would be half won.

Photo credit: Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/chitrasudar/2721323275/

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