Learning to Read – Books or Words?

An interesting debate is unfolding in the Texas Legislature and with concerned citizens organizations regarding the funding of textbooks for our school children. Textbook funding is faced with a 25% cut and approval as a contingency rider, as opposed to its traditional budgeting in the TEA baseline.

Books for kids… That one is always guaranteed to create a deep and emotional response. I’m just old enough to not be a GenXer but just young enough to not be a baby boomer. Regretfully, this still means that I am old… and old enough to love a good book. There is something about the well-bound tome that is truly enjoyable. The fact that you can pick it up, sit in a comfy chair near a warm fire or out under a tree makes the book more than just words but an experience. However, having grown up in a world of rapidly evolving technology, I also realize that there are times when curling up with that book just doesn’t work for the information I need. You just can’t curl up with a Google search or tuck yourself away for hours unpacking a quick look at a Wikipedia entry. Of course, in both of these cases, I’m still reading, an art I learned from books, because that is all we had when I was in school… but not an art that only requires books in today’s age of the Internet.

As with any debate, the motivations of the participants in the debate and the use of certain words as proxies highlight the real contours of the conversation and the expected outcomes by various parties. The most interesting comment was the one that remarked, “books are required to learn how to read.” This dire prognostication actually misses the point of reading. As I’ve discovered with my three children (10, 7 and 5), “words” are necessary to learn how to read, not books. Of course, for the past couple of millenia, words have been printed on papyrus, an invention dating back to Egypt and China. But, does it really matter, if the words are printed in books? Could those words be displayed in other ways and still achieve the goals or learning how to read?

Beware the loose use of words. Understanding what the real debate is is critical to making good decisions. For example the use of the word “free” in the Texas Constitution regarding the use of Available School Funds for “providing free text books” for schoolchildren can mask the real issue. Unless the publishers that make up the School Division of the Association of American Publishers, that provide the Texas Curriculum website resources (texastextbooks.org), have changed their business model, books are not free. Books and any instructionally-related materials cost money. I’m a capitalist, so I consider this to be a good thing. Without a profit incentive, then the best possible creation of materials can not occur. However, if books are not free, then the next question must be asked. Is buying a book the best possible use of limited taxpayer funds to achieve the outcome we want for all Texas schoolchildren? Are there other ways to achieve the goal of reading, that focuses on words and not books?

That debate is the interesting debate. When you move beyond the proxy argument of “books for kids” and get to the heart of the matter, learning, then you are having the right argument.