National Writing Project

Kelly Gallagher Takes on the "Killing of Reading"

By: Art Peterson
Date: February 16, 2011

Summary: Kelly Gallagher, a former co-director of the South Basin Writing Project, will address the 2011 NWP Spring Meeting on how testing, limited reading experience, and the over-teaching of literature have made students commit "readicide."

 

Kelly Gallagher knew he was in trouble when one of his students asked an earnest question, "Who is this guy al-Qaeda?"

This was a few years ago, at about the time the United States launched a troop surge in Iraq. A full-time English teacher at Magnolia High School in Anaheim, California, and a former co-director of the South Basin Writing Project, Gallagher had presented his students—who were reading All Quiet on the Western Front—with pro and con editorial articles focused on the Iraq War.

He saw this particular student's information gap as one more piece of evidence of a condition he has labeled "readicide," which he defines in his book Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It as the "systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in our schools."

Gallagher will focus on the reasons for readicide in his keynote address at the NWP Spring Meeting, March 31–April 1, in Washington, DC.

Too Much Teaching to the Test

One of these mind-numbing practices is many schools' single-minded obsession with preparing children for multiple-choice tests to the exclusion of what Gallagher calls "authentic reading." Such everyday reading could have provided his student, soon to be a state-certified high school graduate and a voter, with some knowledge of a war that had been going on for many years.

Evidence of readicide, says Gallagher, is not hard to spot. By the time kindergartners, who once embraced the adventure of learning to read, reach his high school classroom, way too many of them are telling him in so many words that "reading really sucks." Gallagher is pretty sure he knows what has happened.

For one thing, schools value the development of test takers more than they value the development of readers. A student will not learn to love reading, he believes, by completing an endless parade of shallow test-preparation exercises.

Gallagher tells of how he himself was prodded toward these exercises by a principal who told him to abandon teaching a novel so his students could concentrate on "critical-thinking skills." And Gallagher is not alone. In his travels, he hears many stories of teachers who are no longer allowed to teach novels.

Real Reading Makes for Real Readers

read-i-cide noun: The systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools.

Gallagher believes students will read if they are provided with interesting materials.

"There's a wealth of knowledge that comes from the reading of books," he says, "and we should be mindful also of the wealth of knowledge that comes from the voluminous reading of newspapers, blogs, and magazines."

Not one to just talk the talk, Gallagher has stocked his classroom with 2,000 high-interest books. (He provides an annotated bibliography of 100 of these in an appendix to Readicide.)

Another way that Gallagher has taken on the knowledge gap is with an "article of the week." This is a high-interest article discovered by Gallagher or one of his colleagues at Magnolia High (such as "How Writing by Hand Makes Kids Smarter," "Long Spells of Screen Time Create Health Risks," and "The History of Halloween").

Modeling the kind of leadership that NWP elicits in its teacher-consultants, Gallagher now has the entire English faculty at Magnolia High engaged with the article of the week, requiring students to "mark confusions, show evidence of close reading on the page, and write a one-page reflection."

Flogging a Book to Death

But while Gallagher is fighting the good fight to encourage more authentic and thoughtful reading, he is also nervous about another contributor to readicide: many teachers are over-teaching books.

He calls attention in Readicide to a 122-page guide to teaching To Kill a Mocking Bird supplied by the Los Angeles Unified School District. This guide, he writes, is an example of the "All Things In all Books Syndrome—the attempt to use one novel to pound dozens of different standards into the heads of our students."

He rhetorically asks teachers how many books they would read if they were required to stop every time they got involved in a piece of literature and attach sticky notes, enter marginalia, and provide a double-entry journal every few pages.

Rather, Gallagher is a dedicated adherent of what he calls "reading flow," or giving students the chance to engage themselves with books the way that everyone else does. Instead of overanalyzing To Kill a Mocking Bird, for instance, why not concentrate on related authentic issues (like such modern-day racism as "driving while black" or the government response to Hurricane Katrina).

"You're on Your Own" Literature Instruction Won't Work

Paradoxically, say Gallagher, there is a flip side to over-teaching a book—under-teaching it. For that reason, Gallagher didn't assign his students The Grapes of Wrath as summer reading; young readers need help in understanding many of the books in the canon.

One strategy he suggests to counter under-teaching is the "big-chunk/little-chunk approach." "Students get into the reading flow," he says. "At the same time, through occasional selected close reading, students have a chance to sharpen their analytical skills."

When Gallagher addresses NWP teachers in Washington, DC, he will be offering an arsenal of ways to combat readicide as well as issuing a challenge. "If students are to become avid readers again," he says, "we must find our courage to recognize the difference between the political worlds and the authentic words in which we teach, to swim against the current of educational practices that are killing young readers, and to step up and do what is right for our students."

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