Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Fifty books a year?

Distressed by results of international reading tests, Michael Gove, British Education Secretary, would like students to read fifty books a year, starting at age eleven. He complains that expectations are too low, so that in preparation for school-leaving exams or GCSE's, many secondary students will be assigned only two books over the course of a school year. Gove wants to see kids reading a book a week.

The inspiration for this idea came from the Infinity School, a KIPP charter school in Harlem with a mainly Hispanic and African-American student population, of whom 80% are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

How much of a change would it be for 11-year-olds to read 50 books a year in the US? Let's say the average book length was 40,000 words. That would be 2 million words of book reading a year, enough to put students close to the top of the distribution of current readers. (As I've discussed in an earlier post, Fourth grade readers at the 90th percentile currently read about 2.4 million words a year, while middle children at the 50th percentile currently read only about 600,000 words a year outside of school.)

A book a week might require 40 to 50 minutes a day of valuable time taken away from video games, television, or doing the dishes, but it would almost certainly result in gains in vocabulary, comprehension, and background knowledge. To me, fifty books a year sounds like a goal worth embracing.

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