Children Need to Read Lots of Easy Stuff
Before setting out for a weeklong vacation, few adults go to the local university bookstore or library and look for a really difficult book to read. Fewer look for a book on a topic they are uninterested in. Though adults know about the joys of learning, many more select an easy book on an interesting topic than select hard books on topics they care little about. Why is this so? Why do adults ignore the many books available on arcane topics? Why do so many adults read easy, trashy novels? Why do even well-educated adults lean toward such books?
Children who find learning to read difficult are unlikely to find books in their classroom libraries that they can read comfortably (Johnston, Allington, Guice, & Brooks, 1998). Classroom libraries are more often stocked with books too difficult for these children to handle. The content-area texts (e.g., science, social studies, math) are too difficult for them. Even the basal reader material is often beyond their reach. Yet enormous amounts of easy and interesting reading are absolutely essential to developing effective reading strategies, to say nothing of appropriate attitudes and responses. When children struggle with the material they are reading, they cannot apply the strategies that good readers use, and they do not develop the habits and attitudes that good readers do (Allington, 2004).
A variety of features influence the difficulty children experience in reading any given text. Most obvious, perhaps, is the complexity of the language and the familiarity (or unfamiliarity) of the topic. Traditionally, structural readability formulas were used to estimate a text's difficulty. These formulas typically used some mea-sure of average sentence length and vocabulary familiarity to arrive at a designation of difficulty (usually provided in grade-level terms). But such formulas were never very accurate, even at estimating by grade level, much less predicting whether a text would be easy or difficult for a particular child. Although these formulas could provide rough distinctions between texts, most teachers could estimate text difficulty at least as well. More recent readability measures (e.g., Lexile) still provide only a ballpark estimate of the likelihood of a good fit between a child and a book.
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