Why aren't children forging stronger connections with literature, despite a national emphasis on reading?
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But there are some who believe that shortages of time, funds, and school librarians are not the only threat. They worry that the current preoccupation with the teaching of reading may actually make it harder for kids to discover the the pleasure of reading.Skip to next paragraph
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There has been a long-running battle in the US between those who stress the mechanics of reading the use of phonics to recognize sounds and to "decode" words and those who prefer to entice kids to want to read by offering them books they will enjoy.
At the moment, phonics advocates are strongly in the lead, with the White House firmly endorsing the "science" of reading throughout its Reading First initiative.
But that's a focus that has some worried about the future of reading as an art.
"With these methods that teach kids to decode, you get kids who can read, but won't," says Carol Otis Hurst, a columnist and consultant on children's literature from Westfield, Mass. "There's no goal of teaching kids to become real lovers of reading."
Decoding is a very important skill, insists Susan Bogdan-Ritty, who has taught first grade in southern Albany County, N.Y., for 28 years. But "once the child grasps those skills, you need to move them beyond that and that's where the joy comes in," she says. "I've seen lots of children who can decode a tremendous amount of material but they don't understand what they're reading."
If kids are "reading" but not understanding, she points out, "We're not really teaching them to read."
While funding to help stock classroom libraries is a perpetual concern, there is optimism about the quality of teaching.
"I have a great deal of faith in how smart and caring classroom teachers are," says Paula Quint, president of the Children's Book Council in New York.
Pat Shea-Bischoff, a seventh-grade teacher and an assistant professor of children's literature at New York's Fordham University, says the teachers she's seeing today are better informed about children's books than ever.
They're also working hard at introducing innovations classroom book clubs, reader-response journals, more student participation in choosing books, a wider variety offered that are paying off big time when it comes to creating a love of reading.
"The publications are fabulous, the quality is there I think kids are reading more than ever," says Dr. Shea-Bischoff.
Maybe in some classrooms, say others but certainly not everywhere.
"I could tell you about classroom libraries with 1,000 books, many of them purchased by the teacher out of his or her own pocket," says Jean Getzel, a children's literature consultant in Minneapolis. "But others when I go to give a classroom presentation, the teachers don't have a clue [about books]."
And yet, say many of those who work in the field of children's books, it is important to maintain a certain perspective. Trends and industry figures rise and fall, but the magic of watching a child discover a book remains constant.
"We still see those kids, who, when you've introduced them to the right book, finally hook into something they love, and then they can spread their wings and move on to other things," says Anderson, the Chicago bookseller. "And we hear about teachers doing this, too. That's the most exciting thing."
The adventure-oriented Harry Potter books did not cast their spell solely on younger children. There were many teenagers picking up and enjoying the stories as well.
But some who follow trends in young-adult literature worry that the Harry Potter tales were the exception rather than the rule. In recent years, they say, books for teens have become dark, heavy with problems, and surprisingly graphic.