Read and Love It More
by Judy Purdy
It's not so much that kids can't read; they don't read.
"It's the aliteracy -- not the illiteracy -- that's killing us," said Donna Alvermann, a research professor of education at the University of Georgia. "The big problem for teachers is student aliteracy -- the ability to read but choosing not to get information that way."
Alvermann and John Guthrie, an education professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, are among researchers who recently conducted a nationwide survey to learn what classroom teachers wanted to know about reading instruction.
The answer was clear: motivating kids to read.
"The teachers had many choices on that questionnaire and they checked over and over again, 'We want help in motivating and keeping children interested in reading,'" Alvermann said. "It became very clear that engagement in reading was their biggest concern."
With those results and a five-year, $7.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Research and Improvement, Alvermann and Guthrie established the National Reading Research Center (NRRC) in 1992. A consortium of the two universities, the NRRC "explores how children develop an engagement in reading," Guthrie said.
"There are a lot of kids who aren't very good readers and they're in a crisis state," he said. "Our job is to build the tools that others will use to get them out of the crisis."
The importance of such research is underscored by how much daily living relies on reading -- not just at school or on the job, but even with simple tasks like following a recipe or programming the VCR. Reading, which is just the beginning of literacy, is more than decoding words on a page; it's an interactive process where readers interpret print within their own cultural and social experiences, Alvermann said. That's why the NRRC research goes beyond the classroom to include the home- school connection and ways that literacy develops and is encouraged in the home.
Three years after the center's creation, the researchers have come to one hard-and-fast conclusion: Kids who have a stimulating, diverse reading environment are much more likely to want to read. When reading engagement goes up, reading achievement usually follows, they said.
"Give children choices in the kinds of materials that they select to find answers to their questions -- magazines, Ranger Rick, things like hands-on science equipment," Alvermann said. "The more diverse the materials and the more choices the students have, the more engaged those children are."
Their conclusion carries the weight of broad-based studies that involve 30 university researchers and about 200 continuously active teachers who represent a variety of culturally diverse schools, communities and homes in Georgia, Maryland, Texas, Washington, California, Virginia and New Jersey. In just three years, the center has funded more than 40 projects involving about 6,000 students who range from pre-kindergarten through high school. The studies fall into four broad categories: instruction, learning, assessment and professional development.
It all boils down to teaching kids how to use a variety of resources so they can direct their own learning and find out about things that fascinate them, the researchers said.
"For example, third graders who are curious about turtles can learn to use a book index to find out more about turtles," Guthrie said.
NRRC research also shows that people make good resources. Parents, for example, can improve their kids' reading engagement by reading with them or taking them to the library. Low-achieving students can accelerate their reading and learning with help from their classmates.
Computers also are a good resource. One study demonstrated that young children can use laptop computers to discover for themselves certain things about the language -- for instance, how to construct knowledge about alphabetic principles.
Because classroom teachers are the ones who will implement research findings and because they are more likely to use results they find relevant and beneficial, teachers are at the hub of NRRC research.
"The teachers are asking some very difficult research questions and I find myself having to rethink some of the things I thought were important," said Alvermann, who estimates that as much as 90 percent of the research involves direct collaboration with teachers. "That also makes dissemination easier because teachers don't have to rely on reading a journal article published 18 months later. They get to use the results of what they see right then in their classrooms."
The findings also are disseminated at national and international meetings and through NRRC-published materials and a column in the journal Reading Teacher.
"We want to cultivate highly engaged, self-determining readers who are architects of their own learning," Alvermann said. "Reading influences one's sociopolitical views, one's culture, one's language, one's way of looking at the world.
"I see reading as a way of transforming people's lives," she said. "Once someone has learned to read, it opens all sorts of doors for that individual. We want to discover and document the conditions in homes, schools and communities that encourage children to become enthusiastic, lifelong readers."
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