The Power of Print: What—and How—Should Students Read?
Selecting reading material for instructional purposes has always been a job I have enjoyed. In professional development with teachers (e.g., in LETRS®), the text readings we have preferred for analysis are linguistically challenging, thematically engaging, and somewhat provocative. Otherwise, there’s not much to say about them, and thus, not much to demonstrate about how to support students’ reading comprehension.
Likewise, in choosing texts for middle school students to read in our program, LANGUAGE! Live®, we chose texts that would promote classroom discussion and motivation for writing, even though the program is for students who are still learning foundational language skills. We searched for texts that would pique the genuine interest of adolescents. We wanted readings that would support debate because they expressed a point of view about human relationships, social issues, historical events, scientific discoveries, or fictional worlds. Lessons built around texts had to have worthwhile takeaways or enduring understandings—the rewards of deep, reflective, shared reading. The teacher’s role, in our view, is to lead students through the text, first ensuring literal or surface comprehension, and then, deeper reflection in response to multiple queries.
This approach, in retrospect, carries risks that have become more obvious, and more concerning, than they were even a few years ago.
Recently, the legislature in my state advanced a proposal to criminally prosecute librarians if they let students check out books parents deemed inappropriate for their children to read (https://idahocapitalsun.com/2022/03/07/idaho-house-passes-bill-that-could-lead-to-prosecution-of-librarians-for-harmful-material/). Fortunately, the proposal met resistance and has not been signed into law. Nevertheless, community members have mounted aggressive attacks on curriculum content, textbooks, and library books that discuss sensitive or controversial topics and have sought to guard students from exposure to information that might make them uncomfortable or expose them to ideas that run counter to their religious or political beliefs.
A different, and more subtle effort at censorship is alive and well within the publishing industry (https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/24/opinion/book-banning-censorship.html). Ostensibly motivated by concern for readers’ sensitivities, especially those regarding hot-button issues of race, class, and gender, publishers are striving not to offend anyone. I was advised to remove a sample passage from Sarah, Plain and Tall—winner of the 1986 Newbery Medal, the 1986 Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction, and the 1986 Golden Kite Award—from LETRS because the topic of “mail-order brides” was “unsavory.” Never mind that the story is an exceptionally well written, moving tale of a blended family experiencing frontier life. Authors like Rudyard Kipling with questionable personal qualities or toxic personal beliefs have been put on the reject list, even though the literature they produced decades ago won multiple literary prizes, including the Nobel.
How should we handle historical context, the personal failings of authors of great literature, or material that, to our 21st century eyes, might be offensive? I think we should take our cues from Annette Gordon Reed, author of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. I recently took a historical tour in Paris with Professor Reed, an African American scholar, whose knowledge of Thomas Jefferson’s life and his relationships with his enslaved family is unequaled. (Fact: Sally Hemings, enslaved by Jefferson, bore him six children.) When asked how teachers should present those historical realities to middle school students, she calmly said, “Tell them exactly what happened. It was history. They can handle it.” She did not say that the Jefferson Memorial should be torn down, that the Declaration of Independence should no longer be studied, or that Jefferson’s name should be erased from our streets and schools.
So, what should children read? Is it dangerous to expose students to controversial issues, historical contradictions, or views that differ from their own? My take is that it is more dangerous to a free society if we do not allow students access to all kinds of books and all points of view. They should have more than access; we should be teaching students to question, discuss, and consider views that are outside of those to which they already subscribe, including those of their peers. And this purpose can be achieved in classrooms that are civil, respectful of difference, and open to exploration of ideas—that are genuinely educational.
And how should students read? Is processing of text the same regardless of the medium by which it is consumed? Is the experience of reading on a digital device equivalent to reading a printed book? Increasingly, the differences, costs, and benefits of each modality are being teased out by research, with old-fashioned printed books holding the advantage for deeper, enduring reading comprehension.
Maryanne Wolf, a scholar, teacher, and advocate for children and literacy around the world, has reviewed this research. Reading with a three-dimensional object in hand allows us to look backward, look ahead, and know where we are in the whole text. It adds a spatial dimension to our memories for the words—the page where the words provoked a reaction, or where the story took a turn. It conveys the permanence of the author’s creation, thus stamping it with significance. After reading, the physical book has presence and value. (Full disclosure: I still own and will never relinquish the first books I treasured in childhood. They are old friends.)
So how best to ensure students come to know the power of print? Lead them into books and read fearlessly together. Experience other worlds and other lives through books.
Wolf, M. (2018). Reader come home: The reading brain in a digital world. NY: Harper Collins.