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Publisher/author Paul Kropp on reluctant readers

Paul Kropp is a former schoolteacher, a frequent speaker on literacy issues, and both author and editor of books for reluctant readers. His adult books include How to Make Your Child a Reader for Life; I’ll be the Parent, You be the Child; The School Solution; and The Write Genre. He has also written more than 60 novels for young people, including nine award-winning young adult books, five illustrated books for beginning readers and dozens for reluctant readers.
Born in Buffalo, New York, educated at Columbia University in New York City, he taught for many years in Hamilton, Ontario. He now lives in Toronto, where he is editor and lead author for High Interest Publishing (http://www.hip-books.com/index.php). His website is www.paulkropp.com. He is married to a language arts consultant and has three children and two grandchildren.
Q: Tell us how you got started writing for reluctant readers.
A: In the 1970s, I was asked to teach English at a vocational school for boys—a kind of school that no longer exists—and soon realized that my real job was to help those kids read better. We didn’t have very many books for reluctant readers (the phrase “high interest low vocabulary” or “hi-lo books” came later) so I decided to write my own. The first book, Burn Out, worked for my students and many more books came after that.
Q: How have all your roles as teacher, author, editor, father and grandfather informed one another?
A: My teaching years obviously brought me to write books for reluctant readers. My own children were quite voracious in their reading, so my reluctant reader books were simply recreational for them (though my son Alex now writes novels). Certainly the ability to watch my kids growing up helped me get details useful in my writing—expressions, interests, clothing—but my novels tend to feature young characters in situations more exciting or desperate than those around our house.
Q: Do you agree that too many parents feel it’s the school’s job, and not theirs, to get their kids to read?
A: It is the job of the school to teach and re-teach reading – teachers should have the expertise, the appropriate books and the time to devote to it. Certainly parents can help, and their role modeling of reading is very important, but schools can’t expect parents to do their work.
Q: Should parents take more responsibility on this front?
A: I wrote in How to Make Your Child a Reader for Life that parents have an important role to play, but it wasn’t my intent to lay on guilt. Twenty minutes a day of reading together has a big payoff for kids (and parents too, I think), but not every family can arrange that. The changes I’ve seen in the family and society over the last 30 years make that 20 minutes harder to find today. Too many families are juggling several jobs just to get by, but our governments seem relatively uninterested in their plight.
Q: What’s in it for parents and for their kids, to spend more time reading together at home?
A: The great part of reading together at home is the one-to-one interaction. No school program can provide this, and no teacher can give a child a kiss for sounding out a tough word or reading aloud a page. Everything a child reads at home can be of interest to him/her – not just books selected by the curriculum.
Q: Once kids can read on their own, many parents feel the job is done. Why is it not done and what else would you urge them to do?
A: The problem with reading is that it’s not a single skill; it’s a whole set of skills and strategies that might begin with sounding out a few words but doesn’t end until a child/adult can critically interact with sophisticated text. Too many parents see reading as finished when a child can read a Franklin book out loud. I’d say the job is only started, and might not be done until a child can read and discuss a poem by John Donne—or explain the fine print on a credit card agreement (about equally difficult).
I’ve always said that talk is as important as reading, because talk develops the higher-level thinking that all people need. I’m not suggesting that all reading should be mind-expanding (indeed, most reading should just be for fun … and to consolidate reading skills with easy materials), but some reading should require careful thought, serious re-reading and sometimes outside exploration.
Many teenagers, of course, don’t want to talk to their parents about anything. That’s why I suggest books as a good meeting place for both parents and kids as a basis for conversation.
Q: Is it ever too late to turn a reluctant reader around?
A: No, it’s never too late. But the task gets more difficult each year.
Almost every child in the Reading Recovery program in first or second grade makes significant gains, usually coming up to the grade-level average. But those gains are quickly lost unless strong classroom teaching and some outside intervention are still available. By high school, our success rates are much lower. When I still taught, I could make real reading improvements with about 25% of the kids and I could get a two-grade-level improvement in another half of the class. But there was another quarter where I failed to see any real gains. Unfortunately, that’s not good enough to send all these kids out into a world that demands high-level literacy skills.
Q: What other books do you have in the works?
A: I help develop new books for High Interest Publishing, though I tend to do more editing than writing these days. We have a new action/adventure line coming out next year that should be very exciting, and a number of writers are tackling difficult topics like gangs and teen pregnancy for our Edge series.
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