Friday, September 9, 2011


Yesterday was International Literacy Day. I asked friends what they remembered about learning to read.

My memories were of 1" x 2" flash card drills, using word recognition, in first grade. There's an olfactory aspect to the memory as well, since the cards were printed with mimeo offset; when fresh they exuded a sharp acidic pungency that I liked. I very badly wanted to learn to read. My parents had always read to me at bedtime, and I yearned to unlock the secrets of transforming those shapes into sounds.

One of my friends' replies mentioned the SRA reading program and how it had been a negative experience. When I saw the letters "SRA" my reaction was one of visceral hatred. I hadn't thought about the SRA since I'd fled from it in elementary school. To me, SRA amounted to somebody taking the free joy of reading and put it in a cage. Fortunately my parents still took me to the public library, where the joy of reading still roamed wild.

(SRA = Scientific Research Associates. They were some bunch of literary pain calibrators. Also, they were a division of McGraw Hill, textbook racketeers par excellence. A real winning combo.)

Another reply came from a parent who complained about Accelerated Reader. I said I hoped it wasn't as bad as SRA.

I work in a public library but see duty in the Children's Dept. only rarely. As luck would have it, today the Children's Dept. staff all left at lunch to celebrate a birthday, and I happened to be at the Reference desk when a parent walked up and needed help with ... that's right: Accelerated Reader!

Oh, the chagrin. Talk about a clinical activity: "here, let me dial up your kid's reading level and inject this book into his arm so later he can piss it out and his school can check his urine sample to see if he's absorbed the data." That's what it felt like.

When learning happens, it is the ineluctable turning of a desirous mind to the light of knowledge. So why do we insist on taking the desire out of it and substituting boredom, drudgery, and the lash? Teach the mechanics and then let kids work with librarians in a well-stocked library where they can develop their learning personality. Let freedom read.

Yeah, I know: pure folly.

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