Housewife Theologian

The Gospel Interrupting the Ordinary

Sometimes It’s Good to be Superficial

Written By: Aimee Byrd - Jan• 13•14

images-13There is a reading program in the public school system that I despise: Accelerated Reader. Of course, the name sounds all smart and stuff. But don’t let the name fool you. The students take a computerized test to determine their reading levels. They are then assigned a color that corresponds to their capabilities. The books in the school all have colored stickers on the spine that indicate their reading level. The children are told that they are to read only the books that match to their tested and approved color. After they read their book, they take a comprehension test on the computer and receive points for their scores.

I fight this every year. If you want to grow as a reader, you must read above your reading level. And while comprehension is important, so is learning. We don’t stop where we don’t understand, we actively engage to grow in our understanding. There are methods we can employ to grow in our comprehension. My point is, we need to be challenged to grow, not coddled and encouraged to stay where we are. I’d rather my child read a book they don’t completely understand and work hard for a “B” grade than get an “A” reading something that is easy for them. Sure, sometimes it’s okay and even good to read material that comes easy, but to grow in understanding we must read from someone smarter than ourselves.

Same goes for adults.

So often I see people start a book, only to neglect finishing it because they think it is over their head, or just plain above their reading level. It may have been a topic that they were really interested in, and they might have even been excited about the particular author. But as soon as they stumble over a concept taught in it, they conclude that this book just isn’t for them. I want to say, maybe this book is exactly for them—for that reason! Instead it would be good to think, “This book is over my head, maybe I could really grow in my understanding from reading it.”

But this requires an active engagement from the reader. In their great book, How to Read A Book, Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren compare the reader to the catcher in a baseball game. Just because the catcher is the receiver of the pitch doesn’t mean that their job is inactive. These authors teach the reader how to do this (I know, the irony of reading a book to learn how to read…).

Adler and Van Doren teach about different levels of reading. In their chapter on inspectional reading, the authors explain that sometimes our expectations are set too high when we pick up a difficult book, and we mistakenly give up when we realize those expectations won’t be met. When up against a book that is “over our head,” they recommend doing a superficial reading of the entire book. Look, you just might not get full comprehension the first time through. But that doesn’t mean that you cannot grow in your understanding. So their rule is:

In tackling a difficult book for the first time, read it through without ever stopping to look up or ponder the things you do not understand right away. (36)

Just keep reading. Read through the parts that you may not grasp, and eventually you will find some balls that you can catch. They encourage the reader to concentrate on those sections that you do understand.

Keep on this way. Read the book through, undeterred and undismayed by the paragraphs, footnotes, comments and references that escape you. If you let yourself get stalled, if you allow yourself to be tripped up by any one of these stumbling blocks, you are lost. In most cases, you will not be able to puzzle the thing out by sticking to it. You will have a much better chance understanding it on a second reading, but that requires you to have read the book through at least once. (36-37)

What? A second time? Yes! Read the stinking book again, and the understanding that you gained in the first run through will help you with your second date, that will hopefully be less superficial. But, Adler and Van Doren promise that even the superficial reading alone can be enlightening. “And even if you never go back, understanding half of a really tough book is much better than not understanding it at all, which will be the case if you allow yourself to be stopped by the first difficult passage you come to” (37).

This is the same thing a fitness trainer would tell you about surviving one of their workouts for the first time. You may not complete the duration of each exercise. You might look like a wimp and take too many water breaks. Your push-ups may be laughable at first. Heck, you might even puke. But if you persevere to the end, you have taken a great step in increasing your fitness level. You’re body is beginning to change. Sometimes it hurts. Get over it. You’ll do better the next time. And the one after that.

Don’t be satisfied with color-coded stickers telling you what books you can read. There’s no acceleration going on when you’re stagnant. Read up.

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  1. Kim Shay says:

    When I was in university, the prof I had for a course of Mennonite history supplied us with a book of readings, one which he wrote. It was, at the time, the most difficult thing I had ever read. I had no choice but to power through. It was a good exercise, because I discovered that when I read hard material, it made reading other hard material not so laborious. I think if we only stay at a basic reading level, we will never progress beyond a basic reading level. And that goes for kids, too. That’s why we read out loud to our kids, even when they were well past the age when they needed us to. I read aloud the first two books in C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy to my then-11 year old son. By the time we were done, he read the last without me.

  2. Joan says:

    Great article – although I feel badly now that I opted out of reading through City of God after a spotty beginning with an online group. Thanks, too, for giving voice to my thoughts on AR. Having witnessed the program firsthand as a former public school teacher, I rarely saw it promote growth in reading. Children who were strictly monitored and not permitted to read above their determined level were often still reading primary level picture books in grade six while (sometimes even once dyslexic) children who persisted in reading books above their independent reading level made huge gains.

    • Aimee Byrd says:

      Go back to City of God, Joan. I remember sweating through many parts of that book, but the pay off was enormous. I keep returning to that one.

      • Joan says:

        I may try to do so…. I had joined a group that was intending to read it over the course of a year, and just felt overwhelmed by stretching it out that long while I’m also committed to reading several other things. Perhaps following my own timeline would be better…?

  3. Abby says:

    I will never understand why schools enforce this. I found my daughter’s AR level last year in 2nd grade and intentionally helped her pick books that were a little beyond it. She’s now reading through Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series, which are slightly beyond her “level”, and loves them. She’ll pretty much read anything, including the Bible (TLB version, which she’s decided to read aloud to her little brother), without any encouragement needed, so I’ve basically ignored the whole AR thing when it comes to helping her choose books.

    • Aimee Byrd says:

      That’s what I do too, Abby. And I do express my opinion to the school. But the poor teachers don’t have much of a say these days.

      • Joan says:

        You are absolutely right about teachers having very little say about curricular matters. This is a major reason why I left public school teaching at my first retirement opportunity. I was no longer afforded opportunities to teach the things and in ways that I knew were beneficial. AR is only one (and one of the least noxious) things being forced upon teachers and children alike. By the way, Aimee, your description of AR is very accurate – unlike some who overstate, misunderstand, or misrepresent what goes on within the walls of the government schools.

  4. Joan says:

    One request: Might I have your permission to quote this article’s final three sentences on my educational services site? I will link back to this article. Thank you.

  5. Jeremy says:

    Sounds like yet another great reason to homeschool. Not trying to be flippant, but why fight strangers year after year over the education of your children?

    • Aimee Byrd says:

      That’s always an option, Jeremy. But even when their kids are attending a public or private school, parents need to recognize they are their child’s primary educator.

  6. My wife saw this book on my Amazon wish list and got it for me for Christmas. I haven’t gotten to it yet, but am looking forward to it. I have often given this advice to folks when daunted by the prospect of reading a book they perceive may be a little over their heads. Just pick up what you can, and don’t sweat the stuff you don’t understand. If you really want to know, look words up or ask someone that you think may know.

    • Aimee Byrd says:

      It’s a great book! But I lament that only people who already love reading will actually read it. I will be shoving it down my kid’s throats whether they like it or not!

  7. That book really helped me learn how to read all kind of books. I didn’t grow being a reader, so many books went over my head at first… Diligence, a pen in hand, a journal, a dictionary, and the help of the Spirit have helped me to become a good an avid reader, a good student of books.

    Blessing on your week, Aimee.

  8. Ian Thompson says:

    BBC children’s programming always used to use words in their scripts slightly above the target audience age / ability level so as to achieve exactly this

  9. Tim says:

    taking a book out on a second date is a perfect metaphor, Aimee, because there are a lot of books that I feel I have a relationship with!

  10. Laura says:

    Excellent post Aimee. I’ve often challenged myself to read books “above” me, especially over the last 5 years. My vocabulary has improved tremendously. And even if a book seems way over my head, I absorb more than I think I do as I plod through it. I don’t have kids, so I had no idea about this testing and color code stickers for books!

  11. Steve Dawson says:

    Hi Aimee
    First, AR is not meant for all students. Generally speaking, it is meant to help students with reading comprehension issues. The tests are used to work with students to get them to read in a more careful manner. It can also be used to spot some students who do have reading issues.

    Second, the program is set up to increase the difficulty of the books as the student gains competence. It’s not meant to be static at all.

    Where I work, there have been two different Librarians who have implemented AR in two completely different ways. The first librarian had everyone using AR. It was her answer to a district wide reading issue. The second librarian has used AR to get students with reading issues some practice.

    I’m not sure where your husband works. I work or a school district in Connecticut. Although I am not an educator (I work in IT) , I often work closely with faculty to accomplish curricular goals. My wife, who is a Paraeducator in the same district also works one on one with a student who uses AR. I realize that every school district is different, but I am aware that faculty in my school district have quite a wide leeway in which curriculum can be implemented.

    A side note: it is easy to bash Public Education. In some ways, it has become a national sport. In some cases, the bashing is deserved. Some districts are poorly managed with faculty who would be better off in another job. However, most educators that I have run into at conferences (Yes, I do get to go to some educator conferences) really care about their students and try their best to do an excellent job. My position is a year round position, I often see faculty members in on days that they could be sitting at home relaxing. I can attest to the fact that where I work, faculty and staff care about their students almost as much as the student’s parents do.

    • Aimee Byrd says:

      Steve, thanks for making some good points. Where my husband teaches, AR is now only for the lower students. But where our children attend school, it is blanket-applied on all the students. Both of us are very disappointed with this. But we work at home with the kids, having more challenging reading for them, and we also insist that the teachers let them pick what they want at school, and not be limited to their “label.” Without insisting, the teachers make them pick only their color.
      But that being said, I want to be clear that I am not bashing public school teachers, or even public school. I am proud of my husband’s vocation, and I know that he is where he should be. You are correct, he put in an additional three hours after his commute home tonight.
      We also have our kids in public school. However, I believe that we all make the education choices for our children in humility, because there are serious flaws in every choice. One thing about the public schools is that it is easier for us to see the flaws, and point the fingers at what we’re up against. I do not think the AR program is something that should stay in the curriculum, period. But thank you for sticking up for all those who are putting in the hours to serve our children. I believe that as a parent, I am doing that as well by pointing out a program that the teachers in my area must use. But even above that, I was using that example to make a point about the mindset of many adults who won’t read above their color, metaphorically speaking.
      But again, thanking for pointing out that both teachers and administrators do care for the children. Couldn’t agree more (for most of them, anyways). Honestly, I don’t know how they do it so well.

  12. Jamie says:

    Thanks for the encouragement to keep going!

  13. RStarke says:

    This is because I said Owen might be too hard for some of us, isn’t it? ;) Fine – I’ll take the dare – just emailed two of my older women friends to see who has it….

    • Aimee Byrd says:

      No worries, Rachel. I’m confident you read plenty of good books. I was building on the mentality of those that read the Jesus Calling-type books, but don’t want to read anything good. I hear the “over my head” excuse with so many of the recommendations that I give to friends. I’ve even had people make that comment about my blog. Heh?
      But, I will dare you anyway!

  14. susie says:

    Hey Amiee..Thanks for the encouragement. We attended a faculty conference at Westminster Seminary in Escondido this past month. It was our 5th time we have done this annually. I was very intimidated the first time with all the concepts and seminary language that were “way above my head” We just commented on our way home this time that we are “getting it” and are not so intimidated as were the first couple times. The perseverance has paid off .

  15. You definitely bring up good points. Only by effort and perseverance do we grow.

    Personal experience: a few months ago, I picked up a book, in Spanish, written by an Argentine author. I am fully bilingual,but, just as there are regionalisms in English, they exist in Spanish also. I am familiar with the Caribbean, Mexican, and northern South American regionalisms.

    I began reading this particular novel, and I had to pull out a dictionary in order to follow the story line. I even put the book down for a day or so, so mortified was I that I could not understand what was written. But, I persevered and an interesting thing happened.

    Soon, I was understanding words, terms, lingo, and sayings through context. I’d double check, to make sure I was on the right track. By the time I was halfway through, I was understanding much of what I read. I was quickly expanding my vocabulary and comprehension. By the last few chapters, I was thoroughly enjoying plot, characters and their very distinct speech. I am so glad that I kept at it, and now I feel my command of the language has grown.

    Yes, let us read hard books. Let us use the dictionary. Let us expand our knowledge. Let us develop our minds. We can then enjoy what we never could before.

What do you think?