Skill Without Joy is Rare

Share Button

Consider a child who loves to paint. His creative enthusiasm is strongly supported by his family and teachers with lessons and rigid instruction. Soon he doesn’t want to paint because others are telling him what and how to paint. His artwork becomes a chore. His art supplies then sit unused. 

Photo by Zaur Giyasov on Unsplash

Or consider a budding athlete, clearly gifted in her skill and enjoyment of about any kind of game of physical prowess. Well-meaning adults provide her with the best coaches and extra training. Yet eventually she wanders off the playing fields, finding where her less talented peers are parking their bikes to play informally. A child with such promise might end up never playing organized sports. 

Kids like these love to pursue what they love regardless of whether they perform to adults’ expectations. They find joy in being involved in something that feels personally fulfilling. That’s all they want when they first discover their passions. The joy of finding and immersing themselves in the free self-expression and social interplay supplies plenty of motivation to continue the activity and excel.

Now consider that every child is being taught the same “fundamentals” of reading and writing in school. and mastering literacy includes things for which an across-the-board target of proficiency has been set for every child. As a society we uniformly want them all to be solidly proficient in literacy, the ULTIMATE educational goal.

I’ve shared the above data in this blog before, showing how American children have been doing for the past almost 30 years in reading proficiency. You can see that nearly two-thirds of our kids have failed to reach proficient levels by the 4th grade. A full one-third of 10-year-olds are actually rated below even the basic level.


In the second graphic above, the  Louisville Growing Readers project has broken more recent NAEP yearly results into four groups. It partitions kids’ scores by whether they have reported to owning 100+ books in their homes or not, and then by which kids choose to read self-selected books nearly every day and which don’t. With those distinctions, clear achievement sub-patterns emerge.

Here we see that nearly 75 percent of kids with both 100 or more books in the home and choosing to read self-selected books for personal enjoyment just about every day are scoring at or above the Proficient level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

This suggests two adjustments from how we’ve been teaching reading to children for the past 30 years. We must infuse reading instruction with the opportunity for kids to find joy in learning. We must offer kids:

  1. Book Choice. Increase the easy availability of kid-appealing books in children’s homes and classrooms.
  2. Daily FUN Reading time. Encourage a “culture of reading” in schools and at home by providing time for consistent daily enjoyment of self-selected reading material.   

This simple solution is worthy of our attention because it suggests we can nearly double the number of children doing well in this most important outcome of public education. 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 Responses to “Skill Without Joy is Rare”

  1. Jeri Altstadter June 25, 2021 at 12:31 am #

    Project Literacy Outreach, founded by the late Lucille Cutler, takes the question of literacy a step back to build an Alphabet Phonics program to teach grown ups how to read.

    • Mark Condon June 28, 2021 at 10:09 am #

      Sounds promising, Jeri. I’d strongly encourage, especially for disaffected non-readers, that JOY in reading what THEY find interesting or compelling will offer a powerful boost to your efforts.