Quality or Quantity?

True story.  When I was in sixth grade, my teacher asked us to sign a contract to read a certain number of pages over the course of a quarter term.  Somehow I got very confused by the mathematics involved or maybe I thought we were signing a contract for “words read” rather than “pages read.”  In any case, I ended up signing a contract to read some obscene amount of pages.  The laughter from my classmates when my teacher announced how many pages I had committed to read was slightly humiliating.  Unfortunately for me, this was not a teacher who would show mercy.  A contract was a contract, and it might as well have been signed in my blood as far as she was concerned, and she wasn’t even one of the nuns!  I remember scrambling that very afternoon to find the longest books available in the school library.  If memory serves, one of the books that I ended up reading was The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.  With that book and (several) others, I did manage to read all my required pages, but I believe that’s all I did most evenings for several weeks on end…not necessarily a bad thing, come to think of it.

When I was even younger, I remember my older sister taking me to the library at the start of the summer.  (There’s a funny story about my sister, a library, and gallon of milk, but I’ll leave that for another time.)  She signed us both up for the summer reading initiative.  You remember those?  Read 10 books, whatever you wanted, and get a prize.  At the time, it was always based on the number of books read, but at some point, the librarians wised up and realized that a really long book should perhaps count for more than a really short book.  Now I believe they go by a variety of measures – books, pages, time, etc.

Which brings me to the point of this post.  Which is better when it comes to reading: quantity or quality?  My initial, knee-jerk response is quality, and even when I stop and give it a good think, I still come down on that side.  However, when I do stop and think, I realize that the balance between quantity and quality is not as easy to find as we might wish.  Certainly we want our students to read a lot, but if they read a lot of junk (for lack of a better word) or read too much below a level that stretches them, that won’t do them all that much good.  So we want them to read a lot, but we want them to read a lot of quality, complex literature.  Quality literature is challenging and takes time to read, discuss, and write about.  Thus, we find ourselves teetering a bit, sometimes veering towards quality and sometimes veering towards quantity.

Like a lot of things in education, balance is key when it comes to reading, but as I said, it takes time to find that balance, and the final balancing point may be based on a compromise.  Perhaps you read fewer long works of literature and more short pieces?  Perhaps you read several long pieces in English class, but other classes like history and science pick up the slack with many shorter reading assignments?

Today, I had the fun (ahem) task of reporting the latest standardized test results to the faculty.  On the one hand, this can be a very encouraging time as colleagues are rewarded for their hard work.  On the other hand, it can feel like you are staring at a very tall, very immoveable mountain.  One area that we know we would like to focus a bit more attention on over the next year is reading comprehension and vocabulary development.  It’s not that we are so very bad in these areas; it’s just that we want to be better.  Going from good to great, as Jim Collins says, is not easy, but it is worth it.

To make the transition from good to a great a little easier on myself and hopefully my colleagues, for the foreseeable future I’m going to devote my blog posts (or at least most of them) to sharing information about teaching and assessing reading comprehension and vocabulary development across the curriculum.  I’ll do the research and distill the most useful bits here with links to solid resources.  I’ll also look a little into how technology can both aid and hinder reading comprehension.  Stay tuned.  More to come.



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