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Q&A: Literacy expert Carol Jago

We have plenty of reasons to worry about the reading habits of the nation’s kids and teens (and their parents), but literacy expert Carol Jago says we can correct this problem. She offers advice in her new book, The Book in Question: Why and How Reading is in Crisis. Jago, who taught English in middle and high schools for 32 years, is associate director of the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA. She also is a former president of the National Council of Teachers of English. She spoke with ASBJ Associate Editor Michelle Healy about making time for reading, students’ reading legacies, and the importance of book content.

Why is your book a call to action?

I work with teachers all over the country, and everywhere I go I see teachers wringing their hands: Kids won’t read anymore. Kids don’t read books anymore. They’re just on their phones, playing video games. I felt we needed [to recognize] that there are a lot of instructional moves that teachers can make to reverse this or to create a different narrative around kids and reading. Recognize the impact that technology and the digital age is having on students, but then move to the next step: How can we use technology to help foster communities of readers and help kids talk about the books they’re reading and help provide more access to titles? So, the book is both a call to action and a guide for what teachers can do inside their classrooms and in their schools.

Does book content make a difference?

At the end of my book, there’s an appendage of 400 books, suggestions for classroom libraries. I really wanted to help teachers see that the books themselves matter. You can’t just have a room full of library discards and then wonder why no one is picking up those books. You need books with eye catching covers and contemporary stories for today’s kids.

How is the reading crisis evident in advanced coursework?

Last year’s AP Literature scores were the lowest we’ve seen in the history of the exam. There are lots of reasons why, but what if the issue is really no one is reading anymore? I taught AP Literature for many years, and it’s not a one-year course. It starts in kindergarten. No one gets a 4 or 5 on that exam unless they’ve been a reader pretty much all their life. You can’t build that sophistication as readers in a year. To get those higher scores you must come in with what University of Illinois, Chicago, professor Alfred Tatum calls your reading history and reading legacy. What do the books you’ve read say about you, and what allows you to do the high-level work?

Why is time for independent, in-class reading so important?

We’ve lived through—for almost the last 10 years—a real focus on assessment. I’m a fan of assessments. I sit on the National Assessment Governing Board. But I fear that in that focus we’ve lost sight of what we want them to be: lifelong readers. Kids who not only can read but choose to read. What’s happening in many schools is that time for reading disappears. There’s the pressure to do test prep, whereas the best test prep in the world is reading. You can spend all kinds of time with list-based vocabulary instruction, but how did you learn all the words you know? Not with flashcards, but simply through meeting those words again and again in different contexts as you read.

 

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