September 22, 2011

Guest Post: Psychology & Reading Ability

I'm happy to welcome Becky Taylor to the blog today, for a Psychtember guest post! Becky is both a school psychologist and a writer, and you can find her on her blog here.
There’s not a ton of people who know what a school psychologist does. Usually when the question of my day job comes up, there is a range of beliefs that start at medicating our kids into mindless oblivion and end at the episode of The Simpsons where Bart’s being “evaluated” by the school psych. The truth probably lies somewhere between these two—I work with kids who are medicated (by their doctor, not me) and I do “evaluate” kids…but not in that sterilized way you might be thinking.
If I had to pitch my job it would probably go something like this, “School psychologist tries to help children struggling with behavioral, emotional, cognitive and/or educational challenges access the curriculum provided in the general education classroom.” What this looks like on a day-to-day basis varies widely. WIDELY. But by far one of my favorite parts of the job is connecting kids with books and trying to help foster a love of reading. I feel, deeply, that helping kids develop strong foundational reading skills underscores almost everything I do. Becoming a fluent reader is critical for a kid’s future success, both in school and life.
Chances are if you’re a writer and/or an avid reader, you probably haven’t given much thought lately to how you learned to read. The event probably occurred somewhere between the age of four and six and the myriad of skills and knowledge necessary to build you into a successful “reader” slipped so effortlessly into your perfectly primed cognitive storage bins, you might not even remember not being able to read.
Lucky you.
Working as a school psychologist in a public elementary school, I hear quite a bit about which kids are “readers” which ones are “reluctant-readers” and then, unfortunately, the “non-readers.” In a single fifth grade class you may have a few kids that practically eat through anything you plunk in front of them—the bigger the tome the better. But sitting right next to this kid, there’s another eleven year old that can’t make it through a single page of a Magic Tree House book before giving up in despair.
The vast difference between these two students, and the Grand Canyon between their individual educational needs, is a problem that teachers all across America struggle with every single day. How do we differentiate instruction enough to adequately challenge the high performing student while also remediating the skill deficits of the non-reader? Furthermore, why are these kids so different? The answers are as complex as the individual students and their unique abilities, environments, and educational experiences. In short…there no quick and dirty easy fix.
I oftentimes read articles (sometimes written by people who don’t work in education—or even with kids) that decry the sad state of affairs with today’s youth and their poor reading habits. Television, video games and computers are all the usual suspects corrupting our children’s attention spans and keeping them from being able to make it through Treasure Island. And I would say, that for your “readers” and “reluctant readers” yes, there is significant competition for their attention. And, quite frankly, books will frequently lose simply because the pay off for them requires a bit more effort on their attention. But, in general, kids who have parents who monitor and/or restrict the usual suspects; set the expectation that their child read everyday; AND model the behavior themselves BY BEING ADULT READERS (ahem)—these children usually gain enough experience with early level text to gain the reading fluency necessary to truly enjoy reading.
But what about the other guy? Remember that other fifth grader that couldn’t even get through one page of a second grade chapter book? What happened? How did he get to fifth grade as a “non reader”? Why can’t this kid read? And, why does he just get lumped in with the other kids when we’re talking about competition for his attention because I’m going to tell you—video games are not his problem.
Most of the kids that I work with in the schools struggle with some form of disability. It may be physical, genetic, behavioral, emotional, cognitive or learning—but if they are seeing me, some aspect of accessing the general education curriculum is difficult for them. There can be many, many, many reasons why a child reaches the fifth grade and is essentially three grade levels behind but one thing is for sure, Treasure Island is currently out of his or her reach—at least right now.
If I could wish for publishers to produce a certain type of book, I would ask they start working on a collection aimed at older, middle grade readers whose ability is currently far below their peers. In school, kids need to be encouraged to read the books written at their current ability level. This allows them to build fluency with text without reaching what educators call, “the frustration level.” This essentially means that the text isn’t so difficult that the child basically gives up on it because they are not yet capable of accessing the information there. The problem with older kids reading at their ability but below their age group is that it can be pretty stigmatizing for them to be reading Junie B Jones while their peer is cruising through The Lightning Thief. Many kids are embarrassed by not being able to read at the same level. Another problem is that the content and characters of a second grade book are aimed at a second grade audience. Not many fifth grade kids will, or will want to, identify with a second grade character.
Kids and teens should read more. They absolutely should. And there is no doubt that there are more fun and excitingly new devices competing for their attention coming into the market everyday. But as writers, agents, publishers, parents and educators—as adults—before we start wagging out collective tongues about the easy targets, lets not forget that there is a whole population of kids out there who can’t even readily access the joy and fun that can be found in a book—even when they want to. 
Thanks for the insightful and educational look at reading ability in kids and teens, Becky!


  1. My parents read to me and with me from a very young age, so I was already an avid reader early on. Parents are the primary educators and I think they play a huge role in fostering their kids reading abilities. I believe it starts at home.
    Interesting post, thanks!

  2. Hi Laura. I am also a parent and completely agree. Kids who start school with a strong connection to books, print and literacy have a huge advantage over kids who have had minimal exposure. I think parents are a child's most important (and consistent over their entire life) educator.

  3. I've encountered similar problems in my library. Some of my library kids are reading a few grades below, but they don't relate to the events in the books anymore. The flip side is I have some kids who are reading a few grades above, but the themes in those books are a little too old for them. It's hard finding books for both groups, but I try!


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