Topic R: The Power & Magic of Reading in 3 Parts
Part 1: Reading Is a Way of Life
“We read to know we are not alone.” C. S. Lewis
“When you sell a man a book you don’t sell him just 12 ounces of paper and ink and glue—you sell him a whole new life.” Christopher Morley
“When I get a little money, I buy books. And if there is any left over, I buy food.” Erasmus
“The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read.” Mark Twain
“A man is known by the books he reads.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Let us read and let us dance—two amusements that will never do any harm to the world.” Voltaire
I love reading. Most days, I am working on reading several books. Right now, my bed stand holds Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. She is one of my favorite authors. The next book up is The Book Thief by Zusak. I have recently purchased a Kindle and have downloaded several free or cheap murder mysteries, just in case. I would never want to be anywhere without a book to read! Right now, on Kindle, I am reading Higashida’s The Reason I Jump to learn about autism from an inside perspective.
I also follow hundreds of WordPress blogs, reading some every day. One—The Classroom as Microcosm—has recently been discussing the role of reading fiction in the development of creative and critical thinking. Most comments are praising reading—fact or fiction—because it expands what is possible and explores different perspectives; these skills carryover to all over facets of life. Two other blogs—Autism Speaks: Blog and Daily Good: News That Inspires—often lead me to entertaining and educational articles about many aspects of life. I just always have to be reading something! Heck, doesn’t everyone read the back of cereal boxes if nothing else is at hand to read?
Part 2: Reading Is an Essential Skill
“You’re the same today as you’ll be in five years except for the people you meet and the books you read.” Charlie Jones
“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” Frederick Douglass
“A book is the most effective weapon against intolerance and ignorance.” Lyndon Baines Johnson
“Literacy is not a luxury, it is a right and a responsibility. If our world is to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century we must harness the energy and creativity of our citizens.” President Clinton on International Literacy Day, September 8, 1994
“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” Ray Bradbury
“People don’t realize how a man’s whole life can be changed by one book.” Malcolm X
Given my love of reading, it is difficult for me to imagine that others not only do not read vociferously but that many cannot read well enough to see reading as a friend, an escape, a path to new learning, simply a fun activity. I know reading is taking place since millions seem to be scouring social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter to read and often loudly respond to so many silly messages. But real reading—reading for learning and understanding, for expanding perspectives and seeking new ideas, even for fun and escape—might not be that prevalent. I do not have any real statistics to support my worry.
Heck, general reports indicate that CIA’s World Factbook gives the literacy rate in the United States of America as close to 99%. But I am not really convinced. Back in 1985, Jonathon Kozol wrote Illiterate America, calling into question some of the methodology used by the Census Bureau when it determines literacy rates. Back then, the U.S. literacy rate was reportedly 86%. Some of the methodology used to generate that number were simply asking people if they were literate and assuming if someone had been in school through the fifth grade that they must be literate. Well, at least functionally literate. But functional literacy means meeting the bare basics of reading; it says a person can read basic instructions, know what a stop sign says, stuff like that. Maybe the methodology has improved, but I am doubtful.
In 2002, the U.S. Department of Education conducted a study called NAAL (National Assessment of Adult Literacy). Since then, some follow-up studies have completed research on smaller groups, noting minor shifts in the initial numbers reported. The NAAL study looked at prose, document, and quantitative literacy, and it used various measures to test literacy levels. Some of the factors this study used to assess literacy included being able to locate information in text, making low-level inferences using printed materials, and integrating easily identifiable pieces of information into communication.
These factors seem to basically assess if a person can complete such activities as deciphering a train or bus schedule, determining a politician’s stance from reading a speech or editorial, or pulling information from sources to use in support of his/her own arguments. I am not certain that these low-level factors would even assess if a person can judge whether an internet source is credible or not—that is a higher level skill. Using these factors, NAAL concluded that 21% to 23% of adult Americans were not literate. On the flip side, only about 25% of American adults reach the highest levels of literacy. I am not certain which statistic is sadder.
Earlier this year, Cinthia Coletti published Blueprint for a Literate Nation: How You Can Help. Her work sounds intriguing, and I am definitely adding her book to my list of must-reads. One news article about her publication shares this detail: Apparently, 67% of American children are struggling with attaining literacy. That statistic does not surprise me. As a teacher, I have always been aware that if students do not master reading by about third grade, then school becomes a greater challenge. It is that year that more text than pictures fill the pages and that students are expected to read on their own for directions and basics of the assignment. If they are not reading well, then everything else starts getting harder too.
Donald J. Hernandez, sociology professor at Hunter College, shared this conclusion in his 2011 research: “Third grade is a kind of pivot point. We teach reading for the first three grades and then after that children are not so much learning to read but using their reading skills to learn other topics. In that sense if you haven’t succeeded by 3rd grade it’s more difficult to [remediate] than it would have been if you started before then.” His study predicts that students who are not reading on grade level by the third grade are four times more likely to not graduate high school by age 19.
But what does reading well for a young student mean? Well, for one thing, it means much more than the ability to sound out words touted by teaching phonetics. Yes, students need to be able to sight read or sound out words. Those are important skills. But mastering them does not make little Janey or Johnny a reader. Doug Adams, Institute of Reading Development, offers this analogy to explain the connection between reading speed and comprehension: “A film is made up of still images flashed in rapid succession to simulate movement. Slow down the film, and the movement and meaning slows and the film’s impact is diminished. Viewers won’t learn as much about the film as if it were shown at normal speed. With reading the same thing can happen. When a person reads word by word, like frame by frame, they are not reading at the level of ideas. You need to read on some level that’s more conversational and allows things to coalesce into ideas themselves.”
To be a reader, then, students must have a certain proficiency with knowing the words, so they can move on to comprehension and reflection. Reading well means liking to read, reading fast enough to capture meaning, and reading frequently to improve skills. Think of when you first learned to drive a stick shift. In the beginning, you had to focus intently on releasing the clutch, just so, to move forward without grinding gears—that was not driving. When you could finally stop focusing on those details and just do them, then you could really say you were driving and eventually enjoying the ride. But to be a good driver, you need to keep driving. It is the same process for young readers as they develop their reading skills.
Part 3: Reading Is the Best Gift Ever
“The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” Dr. Seuss
“Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” Emillie Buchwald
“There are many little ways to enlarge your child’s world. Love of books is the best of all.” Jacqueline Kennedy
“Reading aloud with children is known to be the single most important activity for building the knowledge and skills they will eventually require for learning to read.” Marilyn Japer Adams
“There is no substitute for books in the life of a child.” May Ellen Chase
“So please, oh PLEASE, we beg, we pray, go throw your TV set away, and in its place you can install, a lovely bookshelf on the wall.” Roald Dahl, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory
“One glance at a book and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for 1,000 years. To read is to voyage through time.” Carl Sagan
The question then becomes, “How can we help?” How can caring adults help the special children in their lives develop reading skills, master a love of reading that will help them throughout life? Fortunately, helping kids learn to love reading is not that hard. Coletti’s book promises to share ideas that will help foster literacy in local neighborhoods, but I’ve not read her work yet. It just makes common sense to me that the adults simply need to share their love of reading with the special children in their lives.
Here are some basics that typically help encourage a love of reading:
Start reading to your kids when they are very young, infants even. There are the classics like Good Night Moon and any book from Dr. Seuss. It is the storytelling and the time together that are the draw. One of my favorite books to give as a gift is Animalia. It is as much for the parents as for the kids—they need to explore its pages together. And browsing the pages encourages observational skills and creativity. As the book jacket explains, “Animalia is much more than A is for Apple. The letters of the alphabet explode into images that delight the eye and words that thrill the ear: A is for An Armoured Armadillo Avoiding An Angry Alligator. [This book provides] an incredible imaginary world. . . . “
Establish a set time to read with your kids on a regular basis. Every day is best such as at bedtime. But any schedule works: after dinner, every Sunday after church, Friday nights to start the weekend, after school. Set and keep a schedule. I am not meaning tell the kid to go read by herself. The time together is part of the process! My favorite class in sixth grade was Reading. Every day after lunch the teacher read us a chapter of the class book, and then we moved into the class assignments. My favorite book that year was Flowers for Algernon. My adult nephews have fond memories of reading the Wizard of Oz series together as kids with their mom. And now, even as adults, there are some Christmas stories they like to re-read together—it’s tradition! A friend’s older grandkids are going to start reading the Harry Potter series with younger siblings, now that the younger kids are old enough.
Have books and magazines around the house, okay kindles and nooks too. Maybe even a collection of books that is special for those who are good readers or old enough to understand—a goal to reach for! Something forbidden always attracts attention.
Read on your own time to demonstrate reading is a skill you practice and value—and encourage kids to read on their own with you! Telling each other what you are reading or reading a book together is great time for adult and child. If you encourage reading, at some point you will share the delight of your young child demanding to be read a story, as presented by a great blog Slouching towards Thatcham.
Take trips together to the library and check out books together. This gives you a great opportunity to explore areas of interest with your kids: dinosaurs, princesses, trucks, space exploration, elephants or other favorite animals, whatever—there are books with great pictures and words to entice the child into reading. Comic books are often a great place to start as well.
Give gifts that encourage reading or at least of love of words. Of course, this includes books. There is something about owning your own book! But also consider games such as Scrabble or Boggle, even download Words with Friends—then actually play with the kids. Even a set of magnetic alphabet letters for the refrigerator is good. New words can magically appear on the refrigerator every morning! Or get one of those magnetic poetry sets for more extensive sharing of words and ideas. Cookbooks might be a fun read that produces good eats as well and builds living skills and confidence in kids, when they are allowed to do the cooking.
IT’S SIMPLE: GO READ A BOOK!
The holidays are just around the corner. Get creative and figure out a way to share a love of reading with those you love. WHAT DO YOU THINK? What are your ideas for helping kids develop their reading skills? What are some books you would recommend as gifts for kids or adults? What books are you reading right now?
Some Final Quotes on the Power & Magic of Reading
“Whenever you read a good book, somewhere in the world a door opens to allow in more light.” Vera Nazarian
“Learning to read is probably the most difficult and revolutionary things that happens to the human brain and if you don’t believe that, watch an illiterate adult try to do it.” John Steinbeck
“When writing the constitution for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, John Adams wrote: “I must judge for myself, but how can I judge, how can any man judge, unless his mind has been opened and enlarged by reading.”
“Just a thought. What sets us above all other life on this planet is our ability to read. What we read can determine our relationship with all other life on this planet.” M. J. Croan
“All that mankind has done, thought, gained, or been; it is lying as in magic preservation in the pages of books.” Thomas Carlyle