Monday, May 9, 2011

How Do Kids Become Readers?

Among other things right now, I'm reading term papers. Yuck. I'm tired enough of the unsophisticated theses, the gross redundancies (say the same thing four times, and call it a paragraph), the wavering back and forth between general statements and specific observation, the pages filled with forms of "to be." I'm even more sickened by the number of times I have to insert a comma before the conjunction in a compound sentence and write, "Turabian 21.2.1." (1: These are graduate students. 2: They should have, study, and know Turabian. 3: I give them a list of my favorite rules at the beginning of the semester -- 21.2.1 among them -- and I tell them to pay special attention to those rules. 4: We all learned that rule in seventh grade.) But why, oh, why do I have to tell university students to use an apostrophe when making a possessive form of a noun? Why must I correct them on the difference between "to" and "too"?

I know the reasons. The first reason prompted my reading program and this blog: the schools quit caring in the 60s. Spelling only counts now on spelling tests. To correct a student's spelling or grammar on an essay would stifle his creativity. At least that's what my son's fourth-grade teacher told me.

The second reason I learned from Mortimer Adler. In his book called How to Read a Book (imagine your own Monty Python routine here), Adler points out that students can't write because students don't read. My university touts a commitment to teaching "writing across the curriculum." Every field must require prose writing. Every Gen-Ed course must require prose writing. Every instructor should teach writing. But, as Adler points out, it doesn't do any good to teach writing to people who don't read. And most university students don't read.

I was thinking of posting ideas for great books that kids could read, maybe the skeleton of a curriculum for homeschoolers (by which I mean parents who want to teach their kids, no matter where the kids go to school). But it occurred to me that a list like that would mislead if not offered in the context of suggestions for how to turn kids into readers.

We all know the way not to do it: assign reading. The schools all assign books (The Great Gatsby, Things Fall Apart, whatever we can think of using to tell a teen-ager that life is pointless) and make students write reports or fill out worksheets. As a result, we have a nation of people who don't and can't read. So clearly we must give up that idea. And yet we won't get kids to read if we never suggest books, either.

What's the solution? I don't have test studies and statistics. I only have anecdotal evidence from four people: the four people in my immediate family, all of whom are readers and all of whom can write a clear, organized, well-spelled, correctly punctuated paragraph. It's only anecdotal evidence, but it all points consistently the same way. Here are the rules:

(1) Parents have to teach reading by modeling it. They have to read, their children have to know they read, and the children have to see their parents enjoying it.

(2) Parents and their kids need to read together. My dad read to me and had me read to him. I read to my kids, and they read to me. Comic books. Kids' books. Tom Sawyer. Whatever you think is appropriate. Even if it's of poor quality, it will work because of no. 3.

(3) Parents have to talk about books. They have to show the kids that books aren't something to go through and get information out of. A good reader interacts with the book, questions it, experiments with it, learns from it, doubts it, quotes it, acts it out, tries to think of better ways to say the same thing, tries to think of worse ways to say the same thing, judges it, and uses it to judge himself. This goes for fiction and nonfiction. As a matter of fact, it goes for TV and movies, too. Just talk about it. Any reaction can start a good conversation. "She shouldn't have done that!" "What a great word!" "This could end up either very good or very bad." "That character reminds me of my uncle." And a common one from me: "I'm completely lost. Would someone please explain what's going on?"


  1. We are a not-for-profit educational organization, founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery--three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos--lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

    Three hours with Mortimer Adler on one DVD. A must for libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

    I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are--we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

    Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

    ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

    Thank you,

    Max Weismann

  2. Those rules worked in my family too. I'm amazed at how frequently my parents still go to the library. But Chloe is sitting beside me right now with a stack of books and a list she can't wait to get!!