The reading stops here

March 08,2011
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

My students will be starting a book right after Spring Break. It's not a terribly long one, but oh is it densely packed with things to talk about. Their assignment is to read up to page 55 by the time they return to school. A student came up to me after class on Thursday, a copy of the book in his hand.

"Ms. M.," he said. "I was wondering: can we read more than page 55?"

I stared at him a little blankly. I seldom have anyone asking if they can read more--I'm grateful, many times, that they've managed to crack the book at all.

"Of course you can read more!" I gushed. "You can finish the whole thing!"

"Really?" He said. "Because there was a No Reading Ahead rule when I was in school."

And he walked away, so happy-seeming, with a bounce in his step, because I'd given him permission to read the entire book.

I'm no stranger to the No Reading Ahead rule. I first came across it when L. was in third grade. He came home tormented because he had nearly finished the class book and been reprimanded for reading ahead. The whole class was supposed to stop at a certain point and L., my avid reader, my lover of books, couldn't stop himself. Of course he couldn't! Who wants to immerse themselves in an amazing story and then be told to stop?

"That's ridiculous!" I said when I heard about the No Reading Ahead rule. "I give you my full permission to read ahead any time you want!"

Then I worried, hoping I hadn't somehow interfered in damaging ways with some special secondary school pedagogical technique I knew nothing about. Had I just undermined the teacher? 

It came up again in fourth grade, although L.'s teacher accommodated his enthusiasm for reading and never scolded him for reading ahead. Now in fifth grade we're back there again. When I picked up L. yesterday he was deep into this book--the latest one his reading group is working on.

"I'm nearly finished with it," he said proudly. "But we were only supposed to read to page 100."

"Well, you know how I feel about THAT," I said. "Just don't advertise the fact that you read ahead."

As it turned out, though, a girl in his group noticed that he was nearly finished with the book and ratted him out to the teacher. It also turned out that he actually brought home a sheet with that week's assignment: to write about the main character's point-of-view, and offer a prediction of how the book might end. Right then and there it became clear to me why teachers impose the No Reading Ahead rule: it's that pesky level playing field again, rearing its ugly head. The teacher can't properly assess the students if they are not all at the same place; the "rebel" student--the one who reads ahead, will mess it all up, skew the data, make things difficult. As an English teacher I understand the importance of teaching kids to think about making predictions about a text, but at the same time I also don't understand a system that hinders in any way a child's excitement and initiative when it comes to reading. I know the standards are different in math: children are encouraged to work ahead, to complete more problems  than the assigned number. Initiative and enthusiasm in math-reated subjects is celebrated and encouraged but, it seems, not so much when it comes to reading.

Too many schools make reading about tallying up numbers--how many books has the child read? Schools send home sheets to fill out, asking for the number of minutes the child has read each night, forcing the process into some quantifiable system of measurement. Schools reward reading with food: pizza coupons, ice cream shop discounts, Chik Fil-A vouchers so the child learns to consume books--not for the love of them, but for some tangible, usually unhealthy reward. And the No Reading Ahead rule? Maybe there are other good reasons for it I don't know about, but for me, it seems entirely the wrong way to go about a book.