This is part three of a four-part blog series about Reading. So far we’ve covered:
The reader is anyone with a consistent, in-ocean hobby. The tidepool connoisseur, the snorkeler, the scuba-diver, or anyone who spends a good chunk of their life seeing an aspect of the ocean most people don’t see. By the time we reach adulthood, if our education has not taken deep root and made us readers, most adult men read 3-5 books per year.
According to a Pew Research survey conducted in 2013, the average woman read 14 books and the average man read 9. The median for women was 5 books and for men, 3. Most Americans don’t read fiction, though young adults and women are more likely than other demographics to be reading fiction. Saddest of all, only 53% of Americans are reading books at all. The sustained effort that it takes to read a book is dissipated by the enervated attention required by texts, tweets, articles, and blog posts (yes, I see the irony, but this blog post is encouraging you to read! My own personal goal was to read 24 books this year, and four months in I’m on track. I also wanted to increase the amount of fiction I read, since I fall into the stereotype of my demographic and am often more attracted to non-fiction.
So, that’s the state of reading in America, but what can teachers do to encourage reading? Well, for one, we can teach and read good books that matter. The Great Books have their place, but I agree with John Senior who said that the best preparation for the Great Books consists in reading 1,000 good books. Before aboutu 8th or 9th grade, our kids should be reading the good books. These often won’t be the dusty tomes of 3,000 years ago. Rather, they’ll be good works of American and British Literature that don’t have to be translated or watered down. These can be everything from Winnie the Pooh at the lowest levels to Farmer Boy up to and through Kidnapped or Treasure Island. Take a look at my Books page to see what I teach, have taught, and recommend. You can also check out The Heights School’s recommended books, and the 1,000 Good Books list compiled by some accolytes of John Senior a generation ago.
Second, we should be encouraging our students’ parents to read—out loud to their kids, and in front of their kids with their free time. Your kids will do what you do, not what you say. If the mom and dad don’t prioritize the life of the mind, it’s fruitless to tell the children to do the same in school. They’ll do what they “have time” for, since that’s the reason you don’t read.
At any rate, as teachers above the 3rd grade level (where students begin to read to learn), we are only pushing our students to read more difficult and more rewarding literature to give them a deep and broad literary fluency. In the debate among the living languages, we always struggle to define fluency. If you can order from the menu, understand directions, and talk about the weather, are you fluent in a language? As a language teacher, I argue that the fluency you are gaining is one of a culture, not just a language. The two are inextricably linked. English should be associated with freedom as much as Latin is with law or Greek with philosophy. These languages molded and were molded by these ideas.
I am sad when ESL teachers strive only to give their students knowledge of Modern American English, as this myopia will cripple them for the rest of their lives. Rather, we should invite even our ESL students (and I have had several over the years), to jump into the deep end as soon as they can take their arm-floaties off and read the good books (and yes, even the Great Books) right alongside their peers. Sure, you speak Chinese as your first language and you only heard English first in 3rd grade. Good, by 8th grade you’re comfortably reading Shakespeare! And so you should, if your teacher has the time and energy to guide you to that level by then.
So, we teach students to be great readers by guiding them to the rewards of reading. According to Cicero, the orator attempt to teach (docēre), to delight (delectāre), and to move (movēre). I would argue that all good authors do the same.
More stats on the state of reading in America.