The Long and the Short of Reading

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Recently, I’ve made some (what I would hope to be perceived as) gentle (though utterly failed) attempts to coax my colleagues into a discussion about what I see as our confused priorities when it comes to reading education.Avid Reader

Beginning with the premise that “What gets measured gets done,” I have shared my observations that our measurement focus seems to be on Short Run goals totally ignoring the Long Run.

Long run goals are the whole point of working on the Short Run in the first place…unless we don’t really care about the Long Run…or worse, don’t even actually know that there IS a Long Run.

At no point have I suggested that the Short Run goals of teaching children what goes into learning HOW to read is not important. It surely is, but more so in what I refer to as the Short Run (once again, as measured by the yearly tests) than in the Long Run (which doesn’t seem to get measured at all). This singular goal, the ultimate goal of reading instruction, is for children to actually BECOME lifelong, joyful readers.

In my view, that ultimate goal of avid reading, should command the balance of our attention as parents and educators. It is this goal that is the WHY we  shape and guide our teaching children the skills and strategies of HOW to read. However, I defy you to find much conversation about this disparity at all. It doesn’t get measured, so it doesn’t get done.

Tests, the testing of reading, and the scores from those tests are constant and ubiquitous topics of attention in the media and in the minds of teachers and parents. Reading skills are being taught constantly and so they must be, given our assessment focus. However, my concern is that we are so busy working to boost test scores, we are forgetting WHY we are so interested in them.

That Long Run goal of avid reading, should command the balance of our attention as parents and educators. It is that goal that should shape and guide in some ways how we approach the Short Run of teaching children the skills and strategies of HOW to read. However, I defy you to find much conversation or writing about this relationship at all.

There are a frightening percentage of children who CAN read “just well enough” for no one to actually notice, that they DON’T read … at all. Think about children who were dragged to piano lessons that actually did learn to play, but then never really wanted to, or athletes who were pulled into playing their father’s favorite sport but would really rather be involved in something else. We are clearly capable of focusing on the height of individual trees while our forest remains less than healthy.

In a 2007 report from the National Endowment of the Arts* a 2002 statistic showed that “Nearly half of all Americans ages 18 to 24 read no books for pleasure.” That was down 12% from their 1992 figure … and 2002 was a dozen years ago.

If we accept that the Short Run is important only in service to success in the Long Run, then we must accept that ignoring that relationship has at least in part contributed to what brought us to where we are.

How and when do we measure THIS inauspicious accomplishment?

 *National Endowment for the Arts. 2007. To Read or Not to Read: A question of national consequence. Research Report #47. p. 7.

8 Responses to “The Long and the Short of Reading”

  1. Melissa Stucke May 7, 2014 at 12:58 pm #

    Hi Mark,

    I agree with much of your thinking but not all of it. Eighteen to twenty-four year olds are the ones who are reading so much informational text while they are learning a field or trade that they don’t have time to read for pleasure. I think we try too hard to make everyone love reading, and those who don’t love it feel like they are bad readers. I know so many successful adults who didn’t pick up reading for pleasure until after they were out of college or more settled down. Many of my students say they don’t have time to read because they are too involved in sports and extracurricular activities. My approach has always been to find things the students are interested in and then coax them into reading something about that topic. I think I am a great reading teacher, but I do not try to make every student read all the time. It’s all part of balancing the wheel of life!

    • Mark Condon May 7, 2014 at 1:35 pm #

      You make good points here Melissa, but I guess you missed mine. My bad. I don’t think many teachers focus on nurturing the love of reading at all. Given our current system it would be a waste of their time.
      The fact that you are a great reading teacher is not assessed, so there is little encouragement to new teachers and those who struggle to adopt any of the great things you do. Your focus on the individual learner and using what you learn to coax them to read doesn’t show up on the tests, so the fact that you are doing that wonderful teaching gets lost regardless of whether your kids do well in their skills tests or not.
      We all get the same amount of time and we each have to ensure that we have time for what we value. If we value learning from literature and the great teachers of the past, whose lessons are available in books, then we continue to learn far beyond the reach of our individual lives. If not, we are trapped in our own direct experience. That is the happy condition of preschoolers. It’s not so happy for children we deam educated.

  2. Alysia Roehrig May 7, 2014 at 1:56 pm #

    I would like to join the discussion by adding some additional data for consideration related to this important issue. My colleagues and I at FSU have recently posted the submitted version of an accepted paper in our University’s open access repository (

    Hanley, A., Roehrig, A. D., & Canto, A. (in press). States’ expressed vs. assessed education goals in the era of accountability: Implications for positive education. The Educational Forum.

    This article addresses the shifting educational priorities in the accountability era by examining states’ expressed and assessed educational goals in relationship to those goals enjoying historical and popular support. We argue that curricular restriction in response to federally influenced educational priorities limits individual and social growth, concluding that the 2014 NCLB ultimatum provides a ready catalyst for reorienting educational priorities to address more holistic aims grounded in research from positive psychology.

    • Mark Condon May 7, 2014 at 2:27 pm #

      Thank you, Alysia! It is this kind of scholarship that could really add to this conversation.

  3. Dick Allington May 7, 2014 at 2:24 pm #

    Mark, you wrote, ” I don’t think many teachers focus on nurturing the love of reading at all. Given our current system it would be a waste of their time.” I know you don’t believe fostering a love for reading would be a waste of time. As far as test scores go, probably nothing improves those scores more that developing avid readers. I’ll suggest everyone read “The Book Whisperer” by Donalyn Miller. There are studies that also support avid readers as kids with high test scores as well. Maybe the problem is that we, as in adults, as in teachers, make too much of the importance of our “explicit instruction” and everything that goes along with typical conceptions of “effective teaching.” The missing piece in modern models of developing reading achievement is what Ericcson labels, “deliberate practice.” In his review of the research on developing expertise, in this case reading expertise, he notes that top performers from a variety of fields engage in 10 hours of deliberate practice (self-motivated practice) for every 10 minutes of teaching/coaching they receive. But with self-selected reading having dropped largely out of the school picture most kids are now getting an hour of instruction (if you can call worksheets instructional) for every 10 minutes of practice of any sort. As a result our test scores remain stuck,

    • Mark Condon May 7, 2014 at 2:31 pm #

      Great stuff, Dick. Now if we can get this conversation going with policy makers and school leadership, free and voluntary reading of self-selected books, like that promoted for so long by Stephen Krashen, might actually make its way back into the classroom… and THEN scores might really take off!

  4. Glenn DeVoogd May 7, 2014 at 11:45 pm #

    You are so right Mark. Yesterday, we had a lecture discussion from a stats guy at the university who was working to figure out a good way to come up with final scores on reading tests, subgroup scores, and do item analysis with high reliability. He agreed that tests were mostly destructive to schools. This is the attitude that many educators have today. Oh, well tests are here to stay so let’s make the best of them. No. Let’s not. Assessment, yes, let’s have assessment, but make it meaningful and with stakeholders involved so the teacher, student and parent to adjust what the stakeholders are doing. That’s when assessment is meaningful. For the last 10 years we have had a conference here in Fresno (The Chavez Conference) that has consistently informed students and the educational community about the evils of testing. It’s been awesome to hear Stephen Krashen, Wayne Au, Margaret Mustafa, Gerald Bracey, but also a bit disappointing considering lack of affect we have had on administration.
    The point of reading, it seems to me, is the ability to deeply understand an issue and discuss with others. It’s being intellectually curious and knowledgeable so we can figure this life out and make a contribution. The external reward of the test takes all of that love of ideas and motivation away.

    • Mark Condon May 8, 2014 at 10:40 am #

      Thanks for your thoughts, Glenn.
      My only reservation is focused on your last sentence. I don’t see ANY “external reward” for anybody, really. Even when the test scores show “school progress” that data is so far from the ongoing instruction of our kids that no good can really come from it, excepting perhaps the relief that comes from the realization that the Sword of Damocles hasn’t dropped on our school this year.
      Most upsetting is that we are increasingly graduating kids who rarely if ever, as you say, “seek to deeply understand an issue and discuss with others.”