Wednesday, October 13, 2010

What's the Rush?

Last week I read an article in the New York Times about rushing kids into chapter books and the troubled future of the publishing of picture books. I have been milling about it for a few days.

I am bothered by the assumption that reading longer is better. I think reading only chapter books is a huge disservice to children. Children need to read well-written picture books for many reasons. First, visual literacy (artistic elements and methods, use of space, telling stories with pictures and words) has incredible value, especially in our digital age where information is typically presented visually and words alone are not enough. Also, picture books lend themselves to an emotional reaction and rich vocabulary. But also, these texts are about the same length as stories we want children to write. Our young writers can feel how to move a story over pages and experience the structure of a piece similar to one they might use to scaffold their own storytelling. Close study of picture books is the most effective way I have found to teach writing.

Chapter books also have a vital role in reading. They aid children in developing stamina as readers and can help them build a strong identity as a reader. There are many fabulous chapter books written for the early set, many having plenty of pictures to aid in comprehension, problem solving, and enjoyment. I think there is nothing better than the chapter books that changed my life as a child: the Frog and Toad series, "My Father's Dragon", "Ramona the Pest", and "From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler."

But a diet of chapter books only is like a diet of chicken only. Sure- you need protein, but you need other things, too. Children need exposure to magazines, short stories, poetry, picture books, and nonfiction. (I would love the NYT to talk about the boon in publishing of children's nonfiction.) Different kinds of texts require different reading strategies and life experiences to support understanding.

But in reading the article, its comments (387 so far) and the follow-up letters to the editor, I am left asking "What's the rush?" and "Why isn't Shelley Harwayne my neighbor?" Why are we pushing kids to read books at frustration level? This does not teach them how to read better or what it feels like to truly understand what you're reading.

I think this is a case of bad PR. Parents and teachers must live in the world in a way that demonstrates the value, art, and complexity of picture books. It is not about being harder or easier. It is not about pushing kids to read the next level. Teaching reading is about showing kids the value in responding to ideas and integrating them into their own lives. This is supported by word and comprehension strategies, but reading is always about making meaning. Every book you read, every conversation you have, every thought you think and every experience you have shapes who you become.

So, what's the rush? Slow down and go buy a picture book.

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