Our teachers have been very successful at making people literate. The problem is getting harder and harder. That’s the problem. If you talk to automobile mechanics, for example, they’ll tell you the reading and writing they have to do is much more demanding than it was 15, 20 years ago. Computer manuals, technical forms, legal things et cetera.
So the issue is not how do you get from no literacy to low levels of literacy. Everybody gets there. Let’s call this basic literacy somewhere between second and fourth grade literacy. Everybody gets there. They get there at different rates. Are you with me? Say yes, okay. They get there at different rates because human beings do everything at different rates.
The typical definition of low literacy is the lowest quartile. The lowest 25%. So newspaper article says 150,000 kids sent to summer school because they’re low literacy. Well, they’re the lowest quartile. You could quadruple literacy scores and you would still have the lowest 25%. Am I the only one who understands this? We have a math problem in this country really. While I’m on this, let me use my therapy group for a moment. This is very frustrating. We want all kids at grade level, right? You heard that? You know what grade level is? It’s 50th percentile. You see what’s wrong. We want everyone above average. No, it can’t be done. When I tell people about that, they say well, we will try hard. This is a math crisis.
Anyway we want to get — with this we’ve done, we want to get to the higher levels, the sixth grade level, the 10th grade level, the twelfth grade level. That’s what we’re really interested in. Okay, if that’s Lady Gaga, the answer is no.
I know how to do it. I know how to get from lower levels to high levels. I know how to develop academic literacy. I know how to bring people to the highest levels of literacy. I know all about it because I’m an expert. And the answer we all know is one word: Reading. And there is one kind of reading that works better than any other and it was the kind of reading you did last night before you fell asleep. How many of you read last night before you fell asleep? How many of you like me read last night even though you shouldn’t have, it was too late? This is addiction. The kind of reading that really counts is the reading you and I do all the time that we do obsessively. We call it Free Voluntary Reading (FVR), reading because you want to. No book reports, no questions at the end of the chapter. You don’t like the book, you put it down, you pick up another one.
Free Voluntary Reading is the source in my opinion of our reading ability. It’s the source — the source of most of our vocabulary, all of our educated vocabulary just about comes from reading, in most cases. Our ability to handle complex grammatical construction, our ability — most of our ability to spell, to spell well not perfectly but to spell well, all of this our ability to write with a good writing style, much of our knowledge of the world comes from reading.
Now I don’t want to oversell this. I don’t want to say if kids read a lot, they’ll all go on to the university and get master’s degrees that may or may not happen but if they start to read, they’re going to have a chance. If they don’t start to read, they’re not going to have a chance. I want to take a few minutes — we have till what — 7:30, is that all right. I have ordered pizza for 6 o’clock, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, right?
Anyway, I want to show you a little bit of the research and I’ve got some charts here to back it up. The case for free voluntary reading and I really want to go through this to some extent because this research for many of you who are becoming teachers is going to make your lives easier. This is a money-back guarantee. If this does not work for you, I will return the entire $50 honorarium and divided equally among you.
This research is going to make your professional life about 5% easier. That’s not bad. But let me give you the data behind it. No discussion of reading would be complete without talking about how it started in the United States. And it started in a book — with the book that came out around 1965, which you can still get in paperback. It’s called Hooked On Books. The author is a guy named Daniel Fader. Daniel Fader worked with boys who were in reform schools. Reform school boys, juvenile delinquents — native speakers of English, juvenile delinquents between ages 12 and 15.
One group got the Hooked on Books program. Each boy was given a paperback book. This is yours, do with it what you like. If you read it, fine. If you don’t read it, fine. If you want a new one, turn it in, you get a new one. No overdue fines, no book reports, no, nothing. They had a pretty good idea what the boys’ interests were. Now this is back in the ‘60s. The favorite author: Ian Fleming, James Bond. The boys read the books. When you give kids interesting things to read, they will read them. No question.
Some of the boys, in fact, averaged the book every other day for the whole year. All voluntary. He gave them test at the end of two years. The readers improved in everything: attitude towards school, writing fluency, writing complexity, et cetera. The comparison group stayed the same or went down.