Boy Reading

Every class is a multilevel class. The schedule may say they are all in level 1, but student reading levels are all over the place, or soon will be. When the spread becomes wide, how can we possibly reach each student? How can we challenge each of them in an appropriate way? How can we differentiate our instruction to reach each one? 

I recently re-read some “junk” from my misspent youth. And it convinced me (again) that time spent reading junk is not misspent.

When I was in 7th grade my friend Rex excitedly told me about a book his older brother had let him read: Tarzan and The Ant Men, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. He loaned the book to me when he was finished, and I was hooked. I spent most of my paper route money the rest of that year buying every Tarzan book I could get my hands on. There were over 20 books in the series. I managed to buy or borrow most of them, plus many books from other similar action/adventure fantasy series. I swapped books with Rex and two other friends, Larry and Glenn. We would talk about what we were reading at lunchtime in the cafeteria, and I would carry swapped books home in my trombone case.

The books were “junk.” My mother mildly disapproved of them, and my father openly so, grunting and asking why I couldn’t read something worthwhile like Tom Sawyer as he puffed on his pipe. The Tarzan novels were not part of the school curriculum, but as a young teen I inhaled anything written by Edgar Rice Burroughs and authors like him. And I picked up plenty of vocabulary along the way.

Stephen Krashen makes this point in The Power of Reading, 2nd edition:

… vocabulary acquisition is distributed and incremental; that is, it is best done when encounters with words are spaced or spread out over time, and it happens a little at a time.” (p. 47-48)

It turns out that there was plenty of vocabulary to be acquired “a little at a time” in the Tarzan junk I was reading. I skimmed a couple of the Tarzan books recently and kept track of the uncommon words and phrases that stood out in the text. Here are some of them:

propitiating, curtailment, conciliate, sobriquet, cavil, baleful, endeavoring, inculcating, superinduced, promontory, wont, ineradicably, evinced, thews, cudgel, Stygian blackness, repletion, a vagrant breeze, the personification of noiseless stealth, oftentimes, truculent, progenitors, preceptor, invective, chagrined, effluvium

The reading level of the Tarzan books was right for me at the time. Scholastic pegs it at grade level equivalent 8.7; Trajectory gives it a Flesch-Kincaid readability level of 9. But those are not low level words. Even now, the spell check on my computer program does not recognize all of them. As an seventh grader, I doubt that I would have known all of them. I would not have passed a vocabulary quiz if I were tested on them after reading.

I never discussed reading levels with my friends. Didn’t even know there was such a thing. We just read books the were interesting and comprehensible to us and talked about how cool they were and what we thought about them.

All of that vocabulary was in context and used in a story that was compelling to me. When I came upon one of those unknown words, I just skipped over it, because I wanted to see how Tarzan would get out of the mess this time. If you would have asked me if there were any words in the Tarzan novels that I didn’t know, I would have said no. I didn’t realize that I didn’t know them, but those words were there in the back of my mind cooking, subconsciously marinating, waiting for further exposures to define them for me consciously. Reading in high school was not difficult and I did well on the SAT, thanks to the millions of words I had consumed starting in junior high.

In our classes students are at all reading levels. No matter the name of the course, students are all over the place. Every class is a multilevel class. Even if students are all close in their second language reading level at the beginning of the term, they won’t stay bunched for long. The best way to differentiate so that all students can grow is by extensive reading (AKA Free voluntary reading). If we give them books and time to read them, they will each acquire language and grow.

Let them read junk!