Raising Book-Fed Kids

George W. Bush recently proclaimed a crisis in reading as he hammered on what he calls America's "education recession." The GOP candidate may be right. But if there's a crisis, it's of the rolling variety, stretching across decades. And it's certainly not limited to eight-year- olds who aren't up to grade level.

Mr. Bush correctly notes that reading improvement, as measured by tests given by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), has stagnated. But the stagnation dates back some 30 years, not just eight.

While American schoolchildren have chalked up some notable gains in math over that period, reading has been another story. Why? Even the experts can't say for sure. But one factor, doubtless, is the general decline in reading among all age groups.

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Children's inclinations toward reading are bound to reflect their home environments. Are parents reading? Are there curbs on TV watching and computer time?

The most recent extensive survey of adult literacy, conducted in 1992 by the Educational Testing Service for the Department of Education, found that nearly 50 percent of adult Americans had "quite limited" reading ability. Only 18 to 21 percent could readily handle long and complex texts.

Yet we know of teachers who are trying to get their eighth-graders to read 20 to 25 books a year. If there's little book reading going on at home, that's a tall order.

What such teachers really want is to instill the habit of reading. Quantity isn't the point. Students who pore over sports pages, the Web, or magazines are reading, too.

The NAEP shows some small gains in reading ability in Grades 4, 6, and 8 over the past eight years. But there is still vast room for improvement.

So let the candidates offer their policy solutions - such as reading instruction in preschool and yearly tests of reading ability.

But let's remember that the real question is not who's to blame for the reading recession.

It's who will make best use of the presidential bully pulpit to keep attention focused on this national need.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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