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For over a decade, political leaders have been obsessed with test scores in reading, writing and math. In many jurisdictions, the scores have been used as the one and only measure of success in education. If our scores are up, the thinking goes, our education system is doing well, and our kids will be able to compete in the global economy.

But there may be a hidden danger in this narrow focus.

While the test scores are up, there has been a dramatic decline in the percentage of children who say they like to read. And reading enjoyment, or lack thereof, has an impact far beyond test scores. (And far beyond global competiveness, for that matter.)

Reading for Joy, a new report from People for Education, shows the percentage of Ontario children in grade 3 who report they “like to read” dropped from 75% in 1998/99 to 50% in 2010/11. The number of students in grade 6 who “like to read” fell from 65% to 50% in the same time period. The data comes from Ontario’s Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO), which surveyed over 240,000 students in grades 3 and 6.

The report cites research from the OECD, which found that reading enjoyment not only affects students’ success in all subjects in school, but it also has an impact on students’ sense of social and civic engagement. Students who enjoy reading are more likely to read more and to seek deeper knowledge; consequently, they develop a deeper conceptual understanding of the subject matter.

So why are kids enjoying reading less? Television and computers may be part of the problem, but it is also possible that schools’ focus on the “mechanics” of reading, and on the skill rather than the pleasure, is driving students away.

Homework — or at least the kind of homework that can turn reading into a chore – also may be one of the culprits. There are things parents can do at home that encourage kids to become readers — but helping them with their “decoding” and “letter-sound correspondence” isn’t among them. Instead, we should be encouraging parents to simply read to their children — for fun. Reading to children is one of the top ways parents can support student success; and reading to kids — in any language — helps instil the joy of reading.

Teacher-librarians also have a role to play. A study conducted by Queen’s University and People for Education for the Ontario Library Association found that in elementary schools with teacher-librarians, students were more likely to report that they “like to read.” Sadly, the percentage of Ontario schools with teacher-librarians continues to decline — from 76% of elementary schools and 78% of secondary schools in 1998/99 to 56% and 66% respectively in 2010/11.

It’s time to make some changes in our schools. We need to start by expanding our definition of success in education. It’s not enough to focus only on targets for test scores in reading, writing and math, and it’s a mistake to think of education as merely skill acquisition that leads to work. The depth and breadth of our education affects us for the rest of our lives — our capacity to be engaged citizens, to be socially responsible, to understand ourselves and others, to be happy and to be successful in the broadest sense of the word. And reading permeates every aspect of education.

If the percentage of students who report they “like to read” were one of Ontario’s measures of success for our schools, we would be making changes to ensure that percentage was going up instead of down.

So instead of setting targets for test scores, let’s start setting targets for reading enjoyment. Let’s have schools with book clubs, thriving libraries and notes home that just say “Read to your kids — for the joy of it!”

Kids’ relationship with reading will affect the rest of their lives; it’s time to make sure that relationship is a happy one.

Annie Kidder

People for Education

Image by UTS Library