Reading Rainbow and Student Choice

August 30th, 2009 | Filed under: Opinion, personal, teaching


I’d heard rumors that the show was having trouble keeping its funding, but this week PBS finally announced that Reading Rainbow is ending after a 26-year run. Having just turned 25, I spent a lot of time as a kid watching the show’s host Levar Burton on his book-themed adventures, listening to reviews of books from kids my age, and then heading to the library to check out a few. I always thought my kids would have a chance to experience the same excitement about books that I did at a young age through this show.

As this article explains, there’s a lot of debate about whether kids need to be taught how to read first, with phonics and other comprehension strategies, or whether getting them interested in reading should be the first plan of attack.

I believe that generating interest and excitement should be first and foremost our goal as educators. If we get them interest and excited about reading, they are interested in learning, right?

My Facebook feed was a flutter this week with old college friends lamenting the death of Reading Rainbow and they all said the same thing “I like to read because I watched this show.” Sure, they may have seen parents modeling reading in the home, or teachers that encouraged independent reading, but they all felt that this show had a big impact on their reading habits today.

The lyrics of Reading Rainbow come to mind…”I can go anywhere / Take a look / It’s in a book.”

My philosophy of education is ever-changing, but one of the things I always maintain is that I want to cultivate curiosity in my students – a desire to find the answers on their own. I’ve met so many adults that ask questions of friends and coworkers that could (very, very) easily be answered with a quick Google spin. I want my students to know that they can find the answers on their own – that I, as the teacher, am not the font of knowledge in the classroom.

Reading Rainbow did more than just create excitement around reading for children – it taught them that reading is a normal thing, that you can have your own opinions about something no matter your age, and that the more you read the more opportunities you have – that you can “be anything” and “go anywhere.”

The story about the end of the Rainbow hit around the same time as a much-discussed and Tweeted-about New York Times article about giving kids choice in what they read as opposed to assigning class sets of the same novel. The story is part of a great series in the paper on the future of reading.

A reporter follows Ms. McNeill, a teacher in Georgia, as she shifts her classroom from the traditional reading methods of class sets and textbooks to giving students freedom of choice in what they read. McNeill implemented the method after a workshop she attended with Nancie Atwell, author of “In the Middle” and “The Reading Zone.”

What got to me about this article was not the success Ms. McNeill had with the method, which was impressive, but the constant speculation about whether this is the way to go. The reasons behind the speculation? That it may not prepare students adequately for standardized testing and that teachers may have trouble keeping up with all the different books. For me these problems don’t outweigh the potential payoff.

One quote left me hopeful, though, from Catherine E. Snow, a professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education:

“But if the goal is, how do you make kids lifelong readers, then it seems to me that there’s a lot to be said for the choice approach. As adults, as good readers, we don’t all read the same thing, and we revel in our idiosyncrasies as adult readers, so kids should have some of the same freedom.”

I’m always frustrated at policies and methods that seem to move kids away from personal freedom, because shouldn’t that be one of our ultimate goals? To give them the skills they need to make big and little decisions on their own?

Hopefully pilot programs like the ones detailed in the Times article will spread with success, because we’ll need something to pick up the slack if the canceling of Reading Rainbow is any true sign of the times.

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