Focus of Interview:
- Introducing Kelly Gallagher –
- The Importance of High Interest Materials –
- Having a Mixture of Reading Materials –
- Independent Reading Time –
- The Study, “To Read or Not to Read” –
- What is Going on in Finland with Reading?
Transcript of the Interview
I’m here with Kelly Gallagher, author and educator. Kelly welcome! Thank you for joining us today.
It’s my pleasure, thanks for having me. That books has struck a nerve in a good way, I think, in a lot of people and you know I think the time is right for the message of that book. And you know the idea that we’re losing a lot of readers and there many readings for that but I also believe that school actually kind of plays a role in that.
Yeah, exactly. You know I have a couple question about struggling readers but before we do that, please tell us something about yourself as an author and then maybe tell us something about that book in particular?
Well, sure! I am a high school English teacher, I teach in Anaheim California High. As we’re conducting this little chat I am actually sitting at my desk in room 301 my last period just finished. So I apologize if there are any announcement or bells that ring in my background. I’m in the end of my 25th year, not that I am counting but there’s seven days of school left.
And I am still interested, I’ve always been interested in adolescent literacy. I never really set out in my teacher career with the idea that I would eventually write a book or two but here I am now, 25 years later and I have written five books on adolescent literacy. The book that you’re referring to, Readicide, is my last released book. I have a new book on writing, coming out on October 2011.
But Readicide is the most recent book that’s out. And in that book I discussed, you know, I’m concerned I’ve seen in my own classroom over the years. And that is, it seems that as each subsequent years go by, my high school students are less likely to be recreational readers, less likely to go to the library, less likely to want to read for fun.
And with that topic, a lot of the stuff that I’ve read in your book addresses struggling readers as basically all ages. I mean, I know that book particularly addresses out stand right testing which is typically upper elementary all through out high school. But a lot of the issues that you address cover readers even younger, all different type of struggling readers not just kids you know, that who maybe have disability, kids that have the wrong attitude, you know, all sorts of struggling readers.
So with that book, have you gotten a big response from it already?
Yes, the book has received quite a large response. A number of journals, a number of interviews like this one, a number of parents, I’ve heard from law makers. (3min) As I said, you know, it seems more that ever reading is in crisis mode and I think that the message of the book you know, really struck a nerve and people who are very very concerned that are kids are losing the desire to read recreationally.
Right, ok let’s start with the first question. Why are high interest material important to struggling readers? So the next few questions are really addressed the importance of supporting interests in our kids that’s reading, so why are high, you know interest material so important?
I think high interest reading material is important to all readers but particularly so for struggling readers. The problem is, because I think the testing demands the demands of the test and the consequences that kids are scoring low on test has become so intensified that most of the reading the kids are now being asked to do at school is academic in nature.
I am a proponent of academic reading, I do believe that kids should read you know, rich academic text. You know, I want my 9th graders to read Romeo and Juliet or my 12th graders to read Hamlet. But I also believe very very strongly that kids should be encouraged to read recreationally, should be encouraged to read you know goofy and fun and not so serious kinds of reading. You know that kinds of reading that John Scieszka called stupid reading.
And that’s the kind of reading that I think is really foundational to building a life long love of reading and at the same time, although its foundational, I think its being put on a back burner or in many cases, its actually being taken out of the stove completely as the pressures mount on schools and teachers to raise the reading score, raise the reading score, raise the reading score.
And you know, I like to read but if I look at the kind of reading activities that school has asked my 9th graders to do over the years, I don’t think that I would like reading very much either. This kids have come into my classroom and you know kindergarten where no child left behind was passed and they’ve now come to believe the reason why you should read is to prepare for a test.
Well, I am getting ready to go on a summer vacation and I am excited because I have 10, 12 or 15 books that I have stucked and ready for my attention. Not one of them is academic in nature, you know its not the kind of reading we do as life-long readers and yet schools have lost sight of that.
And high interest, what would you define as high interest?
Well, I mean things, you know John Scieszka I mean (6min) he says kids should be reading you know, Captain Underpants, they should be reading gross stuff, they should be reading, excuse me, they should be reading about boogers. You know, as they get older, they should be reading about things that interest them. I like reading crimes fiction, that crime fiction is not taught at school which is probably a good thing, because if they taught it they probably would ruin it.
But there’s a lot of different kinds of reading which I think is high interest that schools traditionally do not value. I think the younger kids at school, the more likely it is that they would get, you know exposure to kind of fun, interesting, you can read on your own kind of books. But I think the older kids get, the higher they climb the ladder K-12 I think its less likely that they’re going to find teachers who really work hard on developing the recreational reading side of their reading development and its a shame.
And I would say typically 3rd grade is when most standardize testing kicks in and from my experience, I was elementary librarian 10 years that’s basically when I saw that tapering off of smothering kids with stuff that’s really interesting to them. And kids you know, focus of improving their reading skills and everything. You know and I think parents and teachers its probably that both lose sight of the importance and the value of tailoring to their interest.
I think that 3rd grade you know, that is kind of the traditional turning point for a lot of kids although I have seen a lot more test prep in K to 2 than certainly that was ever there before.
If you look at the National Studies, you’ll see that the biggest drop off of reading generally occurs around the age of thirteen. So you know, its interesting that 3rd and 4th and even 5th graders when asked would often say they see themselves as readers, but those same kids when you ask them in 8th and 9th grade have come to a point in their life when they don’t see themselves as readers. So somethings sort of gets in the way of that development and it seems to happen on upper elementary, junior high school age.
Right, and I think that as kids get older too you their interest and things change. And some of the things they read they made read certain things but they don’t think it counts as reading which is leads to my next question, I’m going to jump to the 3rd question. Why is it important to have a mixture of reading material, why is that important to struggling readers? What are different types of materials and why is it important that parents and teachers support the different types of materials?
Well, kids are (9min) coming of age now in a world where there isn’t one type of reading material. I mean, kids should be reading all kinds of things. I think for example, young kids should be reading comic books, they should be reading magazines, they should be reading blogs, they should be reading websites. The kinds of reading that they are going to have to, as adults to be a proficient reader.
I am not suggesting that a kid should read a website that really geared for olders kids or young adults. But that kid should be given a real wide diet of reading because its been my experience in talking with teachers across the country, that they are not getting a real wide diet of reading experiences in some of the classrooms that they’re in.
So, you know, this notion of being a literate human being means that you know, kids should have access to a wide variety of genre, a wide variety of even delivery systems you know online or tablet or you know, holding in your hand a comic book or magazine.
But kids who are real reluctant readers more than anybody else need in a variety kind of reading because it probably, the less you read, the less you are developing your background and prior knowledge. And when you get up in secondary school lack of prior knowledge and background becomes in my opinion, the largest reading impediment. I have kids in my classroom who can read the words, they can phonetically sound them out. They have the fluency to read them, you know, quickly enough and still have room to think about what they are reading but they don’t comprehend what they’re reading because they don’t have prior knowledge or background to tie the text to.
So, if you don’t know, Joe Biden, the Vice-President of United States and you’re asked to read something about Joe Biden you might struggle. So, I think if we have any chance to build strong readers that begins by giving – developing readers as much varied reading experience as possible.
I hear some schools, for example, they take struggling readers and they whoa, this kid can’t read very well so let’s limit his science, and let’s limit his history and let’s limit his art and give him double and triple reading time. I really think that’s a backward approach, I think the kid needs twice as much as history, twice as much art, twice as much science so when he actually gets to read this things, he has the prior knowledge and background to understand the words that are on the page.
I find with my students the kids who struggle the most with reading are the kids who have the narrowest reading background. And so (12min) again as a parent or as a teacher, I think the task is to put as much as different kinds of reading in front of the kids as possible.
Yeah and you know I think that’s one of the things that so many parents and teachers, they don’t understand that. You know they say, oh why are you reading that comic book, you know get a real book and they worry so much that their kids aren’t going to become good at reading so they mistakenly narrow down what they give their kid and what they allow their kid. And I see it all the time.
A good example is like in book fairs, I was just in my daughter’s book fair and I saw a parent, you know, tell his daughter put that back and get a real book, you know. And I think it was a graphic novel or comic or something that was very light and fun reading. And you know, I saw her big smile, (???) look at this book, I want to get this book too – oh no, you know, that one, that doesn’t count and you know, it was just sad and I’ve seen that so often not just with parent but teachers as well there’s a misunderstanding that the importance of that mixed materials.
Yeah, there’s a lot of interesting study done in that field. For example, in comic books, you know, they’ve actually done studies with they look at you know what kind of exposure your getting vocabulary wise for example number of rare words. Because the way you build your vocabulary is that you read and read and read and the thinking is that when you’re exposed to a word you don’t know, that generally you know depending on how strong, how weak context is that we learn unfamiliar words incrementally.
You might see word the first time, and not truly understand it then you see it the second time or the seventh time or the tenth time and eventually when you see that word enough, you’re going to acquire ownership of it. And so the key I think is so have kids read a varied amount of different types of material because you want your kids exposed to unfamiliar words of course, you don’t want the reading to be so unfamiliar they can’t get thru it. But you know, we always want our kids to read things that present them with unfamiliar words.
And one study I talked about in my first book, Reading Reasons, they look at the rare number of words that the reader meet per thousand and they actually find comic books very rich source of vocabulary than most adult books. And so if you can get your kids to read a lot of comic books, first of all that’s going to be a stepping stone. It’s going to be a gateway you know. I remember when my daughters read Goosebumps, you know, I didn’t they were particularly well written they were formulated and my kids loved them.
And you know, (15min) that took them up to the next level and the same thing with comic book you know that comic books and magazines and newspapers all three of those often have rich vocabulary than traditional books. And so I think its really important that kids to practice in all different (???) if I were a librarian like you I certainly would have a ton of comic books in my budget for me I would have a ton of comic books.
Yeah well and with the importance of supporting the interest you know the kids to read the Goosebumps that another common thing I saw all through out the year in elementry was you know, people worried about oh that’s just a bunch of crap, that’s not really good for you know, to build your reading skills and everything but it add especially is……. Ok let’s talk about, I’m so sorry what were you going to say?
Its their stepping stones so even if you as an adult don’t think that its the most quality, high quality literature its a stepping stone for your kids getting to high quality literature.
Yes exactly, and let’s talk now about SSR or DEAR, the Same Silent Reading or Drop Everything And Read like independent reading time. Tell me about what your thoughts are with that in school and at home.
Well, I think in this age of testing SSR it sort of being shoved out. Its being seen as not academic enough or I don’t know, not test preppy enough. But I strongly disagree with that attitude I think if the kids are going to become a reader here she needs three things; here she needs a book that’s interesting, time to read it and a place to read it. Now, for some of my kids the only place where all three of those practice intercept is at school.
Some of my kids have a place to read at home but they don’t have time because they go to school and they go to soccer practice, they have to do the homework and they have to do this and that. Other kids, they have time to do it but they don’t have the place to do it because they share the apartment with the brother or you know, a large family.
So it seems to me that they only place where those three factors we can be assured that those three factors come together is at school. And reading is a skill, you have to do it to get better at it, much like swimming or shooting a basketball.
So, the problem I think with SSR is that the older you know, when you get up in middle school or in high school, its very easy to kind of start a program like that. But its very difficult to maintain it. Somebody in the campus (18min) needs to kind of carry a flag and come back and remind the faculty repeatedly why we’re doing this, why its important, you know. I do a lot of that with my faculty I share studies and research that support this idea. I mean its very clear the kids who read the most, read the best. The kids who read the least, read the worst. I mean to me, it is a testing issue but it also, I think one of the reason why SSR struggle in a lot of school is because I don’t think that schools particularly often do a very good job of making sure that kids are surrounded by high interest reading materials.
I talked to teachers around the country and I often asked them you know, when was the last time in a faculty meeting you guys sat around and really had a substantial talk whether your kids have access to really interesting books. And sometimes that question all just laughs w’ve gotten to a point in school where everything is test, test, test. And we don’t spend any time as a faculty working with this idea, wrestling with this idea of putting interesting books around our kids.
And I believe very strongly that every school should have places on their campus, you know, books flood areas and not just the library. Of course the library is super important, but I want – I think classroom should also have books in them. So kid read a Goosebump book in my classroom and gets interested in this series then he could go to your library and he can check out ten more of them.
But I don’t think there’s enough focus especially in secondary schools aren’t surrounding kids with high interest reading materials. Its all let’s focus on traditional curricular stuff.
Well one of the things I know that you address in your book is overload of standards and curriculum as required by teacher and I think most would say that. That’s why they have so many things that they have to teach and prepare for thru the curriculum and then also preparing for the test that you know, they only have so much time in the day and they have to give up something and usually you know independent reading time is what is given up. Then the time with that, you tell me what do you see with the problem with that when they have to give. And I can see many teachers realistically saying hey what am I supposed to do? I hope you can give me some advice, what would you tell them?
Yeah I get that but you know so what the kid passes the test in spring and ten years from now they’ll read another book. What do we accomplish in that approach? So I would answer a couple of things.
Number one, the last ten years of no child left behind reading course has not dramatically improved in some places they’ve even fallen and some areas they’ve flat line. (21min) So, first of all I don’t think the test approach is not working and secondly in the course of not working its actually a double whammy because its not working and its making kids dislike reading. And I don’t think it has to be an either or, I think if you get your kids to read the whole lot more recreationally I actually think they will read better when they get to the State Test or the District Test the school’s pre-enclosed test.
I don’t think its an either or I think if you teach kids to read and write well, you know, they’ll do fine in the test. But if you teach the kids to take the test, they’ll never read and write well. So (???) for teachers because you know, the scores are printed and you know there’s a lot writing on it but to me, I try very hard to focus on what’s the best interest of my students.
And sometimes in my opinion, what my school district or any school district wants me to do is not in the best interest of my kids. And so, I advocate in Readicide that even all the way up to high school, I think half of the reading kids do at school should be recreational in nature. Half. But I would venture to guess that in most school, you know its a hundred percent academic by the 12th grade.
And again, I think what that does is create test takers who not like to be or do not lean to be towards life long readers.
Okay let’s talk about two more things. The study To Read Or Not To Read, I know you mentioned that a little bit in your book but you know I kind of connect reading for fun so can you tell us a bit about that study and the impact with struggling readers.
The study To Read Or Not To Read came out I think in 2007 or 2008 that really looked into reading across the country and had a number of very interesting findings. (???) for example of first generation of students to a race and the sort of electronic media age. They read less and they read less well than previous generations they sounded internet reading often produces shallower reading than holding a book in really working your way through chapter by chapter that internet reading kind of leads to a kind of click and go more of a surface level type of reading than the cognition that is needed to go through all the way to a chapter book.
To Read Or Not To Read found college students are now getting to read less proficiently than college students who did just a few years ago and you know, that the number of students who read below basic (24min) levels of reading is growing. And so again, I think it was a study that really underscored the fate the state that is reading and the fact of reading is not heading in a good place.
What are some suggestions or implications for struggling readers you know based on that study?
Well, the problem is the world is changing you know, when I was in high school you can drop out and be an auto mechanic and that wouldn’t be a problem. Today, unskilled labors are disappearing I mean to be an auto mechanic a car has on-board computers, has a mile and a half of wiring. You know you have to have a level of sophistication reading computers and there’s a lot to be said about developing skills as a rider that were not necessary about 20, 30, 40 years ago.
I mean this idea that kids can kind of just read about the same level that they’ve always read is really not true when you think that the demands, the reading demands are intensified.
And so, our kids are you know heading into a global competition and its those kids who are going to be able to read in richer and deeper levels who are going to have an advantage on those who can’t. And my concern is that unskilled labor is being replaced by either automation or is being outsourced or out short. And so, those jobs that often perhaps may have offered a middle class way out, middle class income aren’t there anymore. And if you look at the fastest growing job fields, the next projected in the next 10 or 20 years many of them value the ability to read and ability to write.
So, if our kids are sitting at school all day bubbling in multiple choice test, you know, I’m afraid as I said in Readicide is raising multiple choice thinking in an essay world.
Right, right. Okay, last question, tell us about the Finland, you know what’s going on in Finland with reading and struggling readers.
Well, Finland has the highest level of reading scores in the world and you know a lot of that you better be careful in comparing internationally like that because they’re are much more of a homo genius population, homo genius language. But out of the 57 countries that were studied in a recent International Reading Study, Finnish teenagers finished first and I don’t know.
They have a very different approach there. Babies come home from the hospital, they’re given books. They have libraries inside their shopping malls. Their children don’t even start school ‘til age 7 which I think is very very interesting where in the United States our movement seems to be starting kids younger and younger. They track it to be gifted in Finland they keep them all together so much more of a homo genius approach to education.
And I would just say the teaching point of view that Finnish teachers are given much more leeway in designing lessons and given much more time to collaborate and take systematically or treated much more professionally than teachers are in United States.
There’s a quote in Readicide where a principal said you know in most country education feels like (28min) a car factory but in Finland teachers are entrepreneurs. And that there’s (???) of course the most striking contrast on Finland is they do very little in any standardize testing. So here’s a country with the highest reading scores in the world, and they don’t give kids the kind of test that our kids are drowning in.
I know there are other factors that they come into play, but Finland also finished ahead other countries that had the same characteristics as Finland itself. So I think that interesting to note as well. That the country the has the highest reading scores in the world, do things quite remarkably different than we do.
Its fascinating to me because through out my entire career that’s what I’ve always felt to just I don’t know its seems like more of a laid back, maybe not laid back but non pressured situation that their teacher promote. Not saying that not as involved or not as caring you know, you just take out the intensity or the pressure in it and give a little bit more ownership to the teachers. You know, I’m sure those are pretty big factors so appealing, I don’t know I just think we have a lot to learn. I know you said too that a good point that they’re different situation but
I think we, as a society as a country could learn a lot from how they do things.
I agree, you know if I’m a parent listening to this and my kids are sitting in a school that has reading scores that are dramatically rising. I have to tell you I’d be a little bit concerned about that because I’m not sure the right things are being emphasized you know, I want to know does my child’s school have expectation that my child will read reacreationally? Do they support that by giving kids time to read? Do they support that by giving kids interesting books to read not just academic books to read? Those are kind of questions that I would ask in looking at my child’s school.
You know, that’s an amazing (???) that something I guess I never really thought of too much either because you know, internationally we assume that high performing schools. You know there are so many involved and caring parents and they worry so much about their kids becoming good readers. They see their school as oh look at the test scores and that’s a good thing. They never even probably stop and think that point that you just raised whether or not their kids are developing (???) and building foundation for reading that’s not just skill orientated but love you know, passion orientated.
Both of my daughters attended very high achieving high school and both did very well in high schools but I have to tell you this, the high school came very very close to extinguishing their (31min) love of reading.
That’s so sad. Of course I am sure that you have a big influence on their love so you can guide them back on the right path. That’s kind of same (???) with my daughters but unfortunately you know not so many parents have that knowledge behind them and that understanding and realization that’s important.
Okay let’s wrap it up here, last question for you I guess I did that one more. What advice would you give parents or teachers that have struggling readers? If you could like summarize everything, whatever, if you could give one little piece of advice, what advice would that be?
Can’t swim in the pool when there’s no water in the pool. You got to surround the kids with books, magazines, newspapers, comic books. You have to model yourself, you have to give them time and a place to read and you have to just give them access to interesting things to read. I know people wanted more complicated answer than that but I think the younger the kids are when you show them the value of reading, the easier the job becomes. The older they get and try to teach a kid who hasn’t read for ten years that reading is really valuable becomes very, very difficult so start early you know there’s a lot of studies that showed your level of literacy, your level of language exposure before you enter kindergarten is a strong indicator where you (???) to 12th grade. So I would say out of the womb, talk to the child, read to the child. Much language exposure is humanly possible.
Kelly it was my pleasure to talk to you today, thank you so much for taking time to share your insights and talk a little bit about your book.
Well, it was my pleasure. I’d like to say thank you for your website and everything you’re doing to promote the love of reading that’s appreciated by those of us in the trenches.
All right Kelly thanks!