Monday, December 14, 2009

Reading: It's The Solution to Basically Everything

I think I have two or three students a year who might be described as "readers." By this I mean kids who must have a book, who immerse themselves in stories, who love to talk about literature, who get a rush from reading.

I myself was that way. I still am.

I became a reader largely because I was an only child, and I had to read to entertain myself. I remember being desperate to read and I actually learned on my own. My mother was a reading specialist, but she was deep into the 1970s pedagogy exemplified by phonics workbooks--which I hated and eschewed in favor of the real thing.

I never understood the point of phonics. Why mumble letter sounds if you can actually form a word with letters? Why purse your lips and exhale forcefully over and over again when you can just look at the letters and see their meaning? Let's cut to the chase, I thought then (and still think); workbooks are boring!

No wonder so many students never got into reading--if schools are spending those first formative years making students endlessly repeat, "Buh-buh-buh...bee."

I talked to my mother about her annoying phonics books. "Why did you do that to me?" I asked her. "I hated those books."

She admitted that it took her a while to realize phonics was a waste of time for some kids--including her own. "You just broke the code," she explained. "You didn't need that step. You were way past it."

I wasn't even sure what my mother meant by code-breaking, but it sounds impressive, doesn't it? The only "code" I knew I needed to break was the wonder of books themselves. How could I be a part of that? I just wanted to be in a story, and to know everything I could.

As a kid, I read everything--cereal boxes, medication bottles, joint replacement textbooks, both books of the Bible and all of Grimm's fairy tales. The result? I became a walking fountain of trivia (mostly because I remember what I read; it's just how my brain works). I also became more interested in the world around me.

When I was five, I used to be into Switzerland, reading all about it, from Heidi to cheesemaking to the old tuberculosis sanitariums. Later, I was fascinated by cardiology. I know a little bit about many different things. This is useful, and it allows me to be able to carry on a conversation with anyone about almost anything.

Now studies are showing that students who read widely, who've always like to read, have a distinct advantage on the verbal sections of standardized tests. This has recently been published as "news."

Are you kidding me? Did we need scientific studies to realize this? Shouldn't it just make sense?
I would think it would logically follow that the more you read, the more you know.

When I was in school, I had, typically, about 50 books recommended to read each summer. I read as many as I could. We all did, at my school (Kent Place in Summit, NJ). We were all readers.

I enjoyed reading most of those books, but I didn't realize back then what an advantage it was for me to have reading as such an integral, expected part of my day.

Many kids now haven't had that, and it's hard to suddenly re-adjust (though, thankfully, there are programs such as Reading Olympics, which help).

Students are now coming up to me, frantic. "I'm not much of a reader. Can I catch up?"

Can they? It certainly won't hurt to try.

"Books are your friends," I tell my students. "There's nothing better than reading." I am serious; I urge them to just try it. (Formulating lists of books for reluctant readers feels like a part-time job, sometimes. )

But it's worth it when kids come up to me later, glowing after a particularly satisfying read. "That was really good!" they tell me, slightly breathless. "Can you tell me about another book like that?"

Of course I can, and I will.

I hope more teachers will do the same.

It is, after all, through reading that we also learn how to write. A person who has read widely just naturally absorbs--as if through osmosis--the rules of good writing.

There is no need to ever diagram a sentence (a timeworn practice that seems to turn kids away from words, not towards them) if you're a reader. Readers just know what the proper use of language looks like and how it sounds--at least subvocalized. Reading is also the key to success in virtually every other subject in school.

If we want our kids to be effective communicators and strong writers, that all starts with reading.

What is the last book you read?


  1. How odd is this? I just tweeted that I'm working on a story about a kid who challenges a teacher to really teach her...teaching being a metaphor for MORE, about creativity and learning as qualities of life...and I see your tweet inviting us to your blog. I get here to find that, as you say, you're all about life-long learning and more. There are no coincidences. I'm so happy to be here. My story is "The Avis Kid," a kid who, like Avis, tries harder. It's dedicated to "Avis Teachers." So, that would be you and your ilk. Thank you, thank you.


  2. Thanks, Diane. Yes, I think we are on the same wavelength when it comes to teaching and what we get from it--and can give to our students.