Saturday, March 7, 2015

Why I Don't Keep Reading Logs for My Kids' School

For the last several years, I 've done what many would label bad parenting: I don't do reading logs. I will not keep records of what my kids read, for how long, for how many pages, daily. My kids may bring them home from class, but they remain blank. 

I didn't forget, and I didn't get too busy (though I am, also, too busy). I made a conscious decision to ignore them. 

This does seem, on the face of it, pretty stupid. As a writer, lover of books and all things literary, and as an embracer of the whole wide world that is open to people through education, I am crazy about reading. I have a book storage problem. I have a magazine hoarding problem. I have a spend-too-much-time-on-the-internet-reading-blogs problem.

I'm also a firm supporter of public schools. My kids go to one where the principal and teachers are excellent, care deeply, work hard, and are excited about students' academic growth. My children are very lucky to be getting their education there. And if it needs to be said, I say specifically: this decision is not a criticism or disrespect of any teacher. 

But reading logs? No, thank you. I know teachers mean well. Reading logs don't work for our family. 

It took me awhile to get to this state of rebellion. My decision ended up hinging on six factors: 

1. It actually makes my children read less. 

Having a minutes-per-day reading goal makes my children read less overall than if they were not being timed. Instead of it being the minimum, they start watching the clock... and it becomes the maximum. It discourages me completely to see my boys dutifully flip pages with only half their minds on the story, slam the book shut, toss it aside, announce "done!" and run off. Compared to unstructured evenings and weekends where they spend an hour or more reading, tracking their minutes was reducing progress, not creating it. 

2. It emphasizes quantity over quality. 

Which conversation would I rather have with my child about their reading? 

"Hey, you read 35 minutes today! Good job!" 


"What did you think of a kid your age living alone in the woods like in My Side of the Mountain? Do you think you'd be scared or would you like it? Would you like a falcon as a pet, or would you choose something else?" 

For me, that choice is obvious and easy. 

3. It doesn't encourage intellectual risk-taking. 

When my oldest child was in first grade, his teacher held a competition to see how many books each child could read in a month. The winner (whose parents were likely brilliant strategists) read a lot of board books with few pages, simple things clearly below a first-grader's actual reading level, so he could get as many titles crowded onto his list as possible. My son read E.B. White's Stuart Little (his mom's lack of competitiveness is notable). It was a big challenge for him even as an advanced first-grade reader, and a much longer book than he had ever read. He wanted to read this rather than easier stuff. And his list of books for that month was also otherwise on his reading level or above. When children are tasked with maintaining an arbitrary minimum or obtaining a maximum amount of material read, they will dumb down their book choices to meet it. This is simply wrong.

4. It demoralizes struggling readers.

It might appear that I'm coming to this decision as a parent who has high-achieving, advanced readers. "Your kids already read a lot anyway, so it's easy for you to skip a log," one might say. But I also have learning-delayed children in my family, and reading is a skill that has been gained for them with a lot of very hard work. I don't take that lightly. To focus so much on the amount of time they read that they define their progress as "I only read ten pages that time" or "I only finished one book in three weeks" makes them feel worse, not better, about their accomplishments. I want them to focus on what they have read, how much they understand what they read, and whether they enjoyed it. I don't care how long it took them, and I don't want them to care either. It's an inappropriate focus for academically challenged kids.

5. It hijacks family time. 

Every day at 5 p.m., I feel like a starting gun goes off. I have to race home from work, prepare supper, clean up afterwards, supervise homework and music practice for three children, and make sure the little boys get through the shower with actual shampoo and soap in use. Two nights a week there are music lessons. There always seems to be a list of random things too; this kid needs an empty shoebox, and this one needs to go collect some leaves, and this one needs his viola tuned. We have to get it all in before the twins' bedtime, which is 8:30 on school nights. That's not a lot of time. And I don't have a partner (or staff) to help me. Somewhere in the balance of making sure the children get the important parts done, that we get a decent meal with interactions as a family, and that the younguns get enough sleep, something has to give. Reading logs are one of the things I chose to give up. We do read every weeknight before bed. On music lesson nights it's just a few minutes. On rainy weekends it may be for hours. I don't keep track. I have better things to do with that precious 3.5 hours between the end of the work day and bedtime. 

6. It doesn't allow children to have their own intellectual life. 

So much of children's lives these days--in school and out--is observed, supervised, scrutinized, evaluated, and judged. As a person who grew up mostly during the 1970's as a free-range kid, I find that the worst thing about our current parenting ethos. That applies especially to reading. When I was a child I read widely and wildly, with no parent or teacher involved. I read backs of cereal boxes, horsekeeping manuals, Judy Blume novels, Fantastic Four comic books, and the ancient back-issues of New Yorker magazine piled in the musty periodical room of my hometown library. Some of it was age appropriate. Some of it wasn't. Some of it was literature. Some of it was utter trash. And you know what? I think I turned out okay. Better than okay. I think sometimes grown-ups make the well-meaning but wrong assumption that every single thing children learn has to be taught to them. But that isn't true: a lot of it is discovered, and that can't happen if we don't leave children to their own devices long enough for it to happen. I want more than anything to give them that time. 

[Note: because I've had good response over the last couple of years with blog posts that were about family life rather than home improvement, like this post, and this one, I'll be experimenting a little more with them this year. This one was a soapbox piece that's been brewing a long time, but I plan to explore other subjects as well. Comments are welcome, both on the topic of this post and on the decision to expand this category on the blog.]


  1. I hear ya sister.

    My son is 35 now and I can sooooo relate. My son was always a reader because we made it fun not a chore. He read motorcycle and car magazines to my husband as my husband (he raced motorcycles) drove from his sponsor's shop to the dyno facility etc. My son would read to my husband and when he came to a word he didn't know, he would lean over, look at the word his little finger was pointing to and help him sound out the word. CAR BUR ATOR

    In third grade, his teacher wrote on his weekly report that he would only read car and motorcycle books and that she told him he HAD to check out another type of book. He walked around the library without a book when she finally told him he could get what he wanted and he promptly walked over and picked out a car book. My son went on to graduate from a highly respected engineering school and races cars. Duh.....he knew what he liked and wanted.

    When he was in 6th grade he wanted to stay up a extra half hour. I agreed, if he read for that 1/2 hour. Not only did it help him wind down but he became a voracious reader. I can't tell you how many of those medieval knights and dragon novels I have purchased.

    I should have gone to the school and complained. If you are trying to get children to read for pleasure you surely do not tell them what to read. I'm sure that teacher would not like to read about cars so why would my son like to read about something that she reads for pleasure?

    1. Some of my sons get hyper-focused on one topic, but it changes eventually. You son apparently was very clear on what his goal was, and that's a good thing too. I think teachers want to supervise kids' reading because they know how important literacy is, and I don't disagree with them. But I think not letting kids have their own time and choice to discover books and reading ends up working against the goal: educated adults who love to read and can function in the world.

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks, Karen-Anne. I was actually a little worried about publishing this one. I know some people might disagree, but mostly I don't want it to seem like flout teachers when it's not convenient to me. I don't, but have been concerned it might get taken that way.

  3. Stand proudly upon your soap box ... what you wrote today is spot on! We had the same reading at bedtime rule as Jan, where the girls could stay up for an extra half hour if they spent that time reading. I'm the type of reader that you are ... words are words and I read EVERYTHING ... books, blogs, magazines, shampoo bottles, etc. You have set a wonderful example for your children.

    1. Thank you! Honestly, some of the best Sundays we have as a family are eating waffles and spending the rest of the morning reading. The house is quiet, and everybody is snuggled up and absorbed in their stories. Why try to quantify things like that? It's a little slice of heaven.

  4. You are spot-on with this one! When my son (now 27) was in grade school, they had a similar program to yours and I never filled out the reading logs or forced him to read for a certain number of minutes a day. This counted against his grades in Reading and in Class Participation. He read voraciously, and far above his grade level; like your boys (and Jan and Connie's kids too) he just didn't want to be told what to read and when. Good for you!!

    1. Rebel mamas are a dangerous bunch. :)