I love the thriller genre: John Grisham, James Patterson, David Baldacci, Dan Brown. And because I’m a teacher, my schedule allows me the luxury of spending hours and hours in the summer reading stacks of books from the library. I especially enjoy returning to my favorite authors, because I relish revisiting the characters. I want to see where their lives are going, how their careers are progressing and what new trouble they’ve gotten into. They feel like family somehow.
But I also love to read new authors and discover new characters. A few years ago, I admit now publically, I was into sappy romance novels: Jude Deveraux, Sandra Brown, Nicholas Sparks. I return to these periodically, but I read them in my backyard, as opposed to my front, so no one knows.
During the school year, I read the classics. And when my own kids are reading a new young adult novel, I sometimes pick it up alongside them. Additionally, you can find me in the middle of job-related professional development books at any time during the year -- those for teachers about writing, reading, instruction and trends.
Several years ago, I found myself immersed in the world of nonfiction, including Freakonomics, biographies and everything by Malcolm Gladwell I could get my hands on. These books offered me new perspectives and loaded me with great discussion topics for get-togethers with friends.
As a kid, I grew up reading Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, Nancy Drew, V.C. Andrews, and Danielle Steele.
You get my point. Clearly I’m a reader. I always have been.
This last week I attended a full-day professional development seminar. The keynote speaker was Penny Kittle. She is a teacher, author, and advocate for inspiring readers, writers and teachers. Her message was powerful; however, one line gnawed at me. She quoted a Scholastic study wherein they reported that kids are losing interest in reading as early as the age of eight. I couldn’t believe it. Eight? How does a child lose interest in reading at eight? I didn’t get it.
I went home that night and asked my own kids, ages eleven and thirteen, about their reading interest. Turns out, the Scholastic study holds true in my own home. In a home full of books, magazines and adult readers who model reading every day, my own kids aren’t reading -- and don’t enjoy it. How is that possible?
This phenomenon got me thinking.
Reading for me is easy; I know how to adapt my reading for intensity based on the complexity of the text. I have the stamina and skills to work through reports of educational data, factual statistics in news articles about world events in which I have no background knowledge, beginning chapters of books from new authors whose characters I don’t yet know, and anything else I choose to pick up. But I can do this because I’ve practiced reading my entire life -- literally every day from the time I could.
Is it possible our teenagers today don’t like to read because they have been out of practice since the age of eight? Is it possible the reading our kids do in school doesn’t inspire them to want to read or teach them how to read?
Asking a ninth grader to read Charles Dickens if he hasn’t done any reading for the past three years is like asking that same child to play on the high school soccer team when he hasn’t practiced soccer since elementary school. I wouldn’t expect a child -- in either scenario -- to perform well.
Practice builds skill, and Malcolm Gladwell, in his 2008 book Outliers, suggests that “ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.” How do we expect our kids to “rise to greatness” -- get through college and have a successful career -- if they can’t read and don’t practice?
At home, we need to inspire our kids: help them find books that interest them, encourage them to try new genres, talk to them about what we’re reading, expose them to the reading expectations for adults -- get them to practice.
In the classroom, teachers need to be not only doing the same, but also teaching them the skills and strategies necessary to tackle complex texts for a variety of purposes. And this needs to be done every day -- in every class -- by challenging them with a wide variety of text types.
Kids need to read -- and need to be good readers -- in order to question the world, find bias in the generally accepted, inform the uninformed, wonder about their place in the world, and argue for the sake of empowerment.
They need to read in order to be great.
And then maybe, just maybe, with practice -- they’ll learn to love it again, too.