Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Reading Update: Dipping In or Reading Through?

Reading Paddington Helps Out on a car trip
 As I have written before, I was convinced by John Holt's Learning All the Time and the Finnish kindergarten model that in a text-rich environment N. would learn to read without any explicit instruction in reading.  So we have not taught N. to read with formal reading lessons, computer reading games, worksheets, etc.  We have a lot of books and we read to him all the time, and that's all.  But as an English professor who is passionate about reading, I have struggled to be patient as he made his own way in his own time through the stages of his independent journey toward literacy.  N. loves books, has known the alphabet since about 3 1/2 years old, has long been able to read individual words on signs, newspapers, etc., and was reading Dick and Jane a year ago at nearly 6 years old.  I assumed that after Dick and Jane, N. would move on to the other "easy reader" books that I carefully strewed about, but he was uninterested and often actively rejected them.  Instead, all this past year he's spent a lot of time looking at more difficult favorite picture and chapter books.  I was never sure how much he was reading these or whether he was simply looking at the illustrations (probably some of both), but I now believe this was a kind of silent reading practice as he immersed himself in favorite books we've read to him over and over.  Every morning he spent long stretches of time "looking at books."  He could read familiar picture books aloud if asked to but didn't like doing so, and he didn't want to read new unfamiliar books by himself, so we didn't push either.  We didn't want to make reading a site of conflict or negative associations.  I managed to keep my impatience to myself, but nonetheless I had a specific model of what it looked like for a child to be a fluent reader, namely independently reading unfamiliar books, and I wondered (however unfairly) when I would see my now nearly 7-year-old son conform to that model.

Then in May 2011, N.'s independent reading suddenly took off.  He no longer said he was "looking at books" in the morning but that he was "reading books" and would we please stop interrupting him.  I discovered while reading aloud The BFG that he had read ahead several chapters.  One morning he read 3 chapters of Henry Huggins.  Another morning he read a chapter of Russell and Elisa; another he read a chapter of The Indian in the Cupboard.  I was elated!  We bought three new Paddington books in England and in the last few days of our trip he was devouring Paddington Here and Now (listed reading level: grades 3-5) on the train, subway, and airplane.  Now he reads at least a chapter of some book or other every morning: Pooh, Thomas the Train, Pippi Longstocking, Rufus M., The Tough Winter, The Time Garden.  Most of these are books I've read aloud to him at least once before, but now that I know he's reading this challenging material, I am less obsessed with whether he's reading unfamiliar books (although I am still perplexed by his randomly reading single chapters in the middle of unfamiliar books).  I recognize that dipping in to these favorite books all by himself is an incredibly rich experience for him.

N.'s mode of reading -- "dipping in," I'm calling it, randomly reading a chapter in a new book or looking for a favorite chapter somewhere in a book, reading it, and then repeating the process with a different book -- surprises and intrigues me.  My model of "proper" reading is linear; you start at the beginning and read through to the end!  In coming to terms with the difference between my model and N.'s current mode of reading, I remembered that one of my favorite eighteenth-century writers, the very learned Samuel Johnson, excoriated pedants who demanded linear reading.

In James Boswell's Life of Johnson (published in 1791) he describes Johnson's reaction to an instructor's advice that his pupil "read to the end of whatever books he should begin:"
'This is surely strange advice; you may as well resolve that whatever men you happen to get acquainted with, you are to keep to them for life.  A book may be good for nothing; or there may be only one thing in it worth knowing; are we to read it all through?' (Life of Johnson p. 1304)
On another occasion a friend asked Johnson his opinion of a recent and much admired book.  "I have looked into it" said Johnson.  "What," said his friend, "Have you not read it through?"  According to Boswell, "Johnson, offended at being thus pressed, and so obliged to own his cursory mode of reading, answered tartly, 'No, Sir, do you read books through?'" (Life of Johnson p. 520). 

Johnson also believed strongly that both children and adults should read what captures their attention.  "A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good" (Life of Johnson p. 303-4).  "He said, that for general improvement, a man should read whatever his immediate inclination prompts him to, though to be sure, if a man has a science to learn, he must regularly and resolutely advance.  He added, 'what we read with inclination makes a much stronger impression.  If we read without inclination, half the mind is employed in fixing the attention; so there is but one half to be employed on what we read'" (Life of Johnson p. 747).  Johnson makes the important distinction that when one is learning a particular discipline (a "science" of any sort, including literature) one must read methodically through the major works in the field, but he describes so poignantly the wasted mental effort of trying to focus the mind on required reading.  He goes so far as to say that you must seize the precious moment when your attention is captured, no matter what: "He said, 'if a man begins to read in the middle of a book, and feels an inclination to go on, let him not quit it, to go to the beginning.  He may, perhaps, not feel again the inclination'" (p. 747).  Johnson, like other eighteenth-century writers on education (Locke, Maria Edgeworth), believed strongly in the pedagogical efficacy of the chance encounter.  There is something about coming upon an idea or book by chance that makes us especially receptive to learning.

For children (or rather, boys, the subject of Johnson and Boswell's conversations about reading and education; although Johnson appreciated and encouraged learned women writers, he does not as far as I know comment on girls' education), Johnson advocates free-range reading:
I am always for getting a boy forward in his learning; for that is a sure good.  I would let him at first read any English book which happens to engage his attention; because you have done a great deal when you have brought him to have entertainment from a book.  He'll get better books afterwards. (Life of Johnson p. 1020). 
Again he acknowledges that eventually one must read deeply to be a true scholar, but Johnson maintains that dipping in to books can have particular benefits for the child learner: 'Snatches of reading (said he,)  will not make a Bentley or a Clarke.  They are, however, in a certain degree advantageous.  I would put a child into a library (where no unfit books are) and let him read at his choice.  A child should not be discouraged from reading anything that he takes a liking to, from a notion that it is above his reach.  If that be the case, the child will soon find it out and desist; if not, he of course gains from the instruction; which is so much the more likely to come, from the inclination with which he takes up the study.' (Life p. 1080).

I love it that Johnson imagines a child encountering something too difficult as he browses a library, and that for Johnson this can only be good for him.  In fact, to bring this all back to N., I suspect that difficulty is at least in part behind N.'s dipping in to books, that he wants to read silently at our read-aloud level but can't yet sustain it beyond a chapter or two.  Perhaps as he gains confidence and facility he will read a chapter book through.  Or perhaps he'll remain like Samuel Johnson, dipping in to books as the inclination strikes him.  N. could do worse than follow Johnson!


Mom and Kiddo said...

This is so interesting. I never thought about the different ways children learn to read before I had kids, but now I find it fascinating. Have you read The Shallows? Yesterday I read his chapter on how Deep Reading changed us, and was mesmerized.

Fanny Harville said...

I haven't read The Shallows yet but it has been on my to-read list for quite a few months!

Anonymous said...

Oh my goodness!!! This "dipping" that your son does, my little girl does too. I've only just recently made the decision to let her be. This "dipping" really bothered me for quite some time. I forget she's still so young, also seven, and I have to be careful not to push her in an effort preserve any love of books and reading. Because she did learn to read at an early age, I assumed her reading would take off, which is has, but not in the standard, linear fashion I thought it would. She'll dip into this and that book, not really landing on anything in particular. It's as if she's still looking for just the right one. I think this child has been put on the planet to make me question everything I've come to know as fact!

I love, love blog!!!! All the best on your journey.

Fanny Harville said...

Thanks for your comment!

Mandy said...

I find this so interesting. Hunter completed an entire phonics program online and still doesn't read well. Worse,the program stressed him out so much that now he hates to read. I sure hope to see the kind of development that you have seen with N... a moving forward towards being a reader.

Fanny Harville said...

Hi Mandy, My advice would be to keep doing lots of reading aloud together to build back up the positive vibes toward books, and strew magazines, comics, etc. around that are on the topics he's interested in, that he might pick up and look at on his own, but without any requirement that he do so. It is so hard to be patient, but I really do believe that a text-rich environment is more effective than phonics programs, etc.
Thanks for commenting!

Jessica said...


I just have to add, I love the photo of reading in the car. I have a small collection of the same view of Benjamin--head down, immersed in a book.

Benjamin (6.5) is in the process of learning to read. He's had a very positive experience thus far--and he is clearly more interested this year (rather than last) in deciphering environmental print, writing short notes, etc.

I wholeheartedly believe in Holt's ideas on reading--but I must admit I was a bit worried when Benjamin was showing no interest. Then one day--quite suddenly--he was reading!

Megan D. Neal said...

Wonderful post! Both my older girls do a lot of dipping into books, reading snatches here and there, although my 6 year old does it more than my 8 year old. Sometimes they find a book that will hold their attention throughout.
I think it's very common for young readers to be "dippers" rather than linear readers. Which is why the plodding reading exercises in public/private school are so boring and tend to kill the love of reading rather than foster it.
I think your advice to Mandy is perfect. Expressively reading aloud makes a HUGE difference in the reading life of a child. Holt's advice about strewing is right on too. And if you're doing both, and severely limiting TV watching, eventually things will click.

Fanny Harville said...

Thanks for your comment, Megan. It's nice to hear that your daughters read this way too. Because the dull school-method of pushing linear reading was all I was familiar with, I had no idea before N. how common a stage this is.

Read Aloud Dad said...

Fantastic post. This is precisely an issue that I was wondering about.

What is more important? Teaching our kids how to read as a formal program or should we instead focus on stimulating the desire for reading.

The first approach has its proponents, but it also boils down to a cryptography class. How to decode a code. It is not enough.

We really need to light that fire inside of them. To make reading a skill that is so irresistible that they will try to decode the code themselves ... because they want to access the hidden messages in books.

Loved it.

Read Aloud Dad

Fanny Harville said...

Hi Read Aloud Dad,
In my limited experience, focusing on developing a love of reading in a text-rich environment has been successful. I have no idea if schools can replicate this, but parents certainly can at home.
Thanks for your comment and the retweet!