Seven Lies About Reading
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When talking about kids at social gatherings, physicians get asked medical questions, dentists get asked dental questions, and teachers get asked everything else. Parents, concerned about how their children–or don't learn–often corner me at dinner parties and conferences. A common concern is kids’ decline in reading, at least in the reading of books. If they read at all, it’s likely to be on a screen of some sort. In 2013, Britain’s National Literacy Trust reported that reading on-screen had overtaken time reading books–and, ironically, I read that on-screen.
But the comments I hear from parents are either that their kids aren’t reading or they are reading the wrong things. A typical comment is from friends at whose house I’d stopped to pick up one of my sons after a play date. “Stephen used to read so much when he was younger! Now he just doesn’t seem interested in books.”
The parents are high achieving university educated individuals. I glanced around the living room. “Where are your books?” I asked. “Do they ever see you reading?”
The realization slapped them on the face and they both unconsciously raised their hands to their mouths in horror. “We read before bed,” they whispered. “There are stacks of books on both sides of our bed.”
Now, I have to confess that we don’t have a collection of books in our dining room, but we do have lots in every other room, including the living room, each of our three bathrooms, the three bedrooms, in my office and in my wife’s studio as well as on a large shelf in one hallway. The laundry book has a few books about cleaning and house care and the kitchen daybed is usually strewn with whatever we’re reading at the moment. The pantry has more than 200 cookbooks. We’re readers and our sons see us reading throughout the day, as well as before bed. So, naturally, they’re readers too.
But reading is a curious thing. In lectures to teachers, I often tell seven obvious lies to get them thinking what reading is and is not.
Lie #1: I can read a 300 page book in 30 seconds!
Much is made about speed-reading and I’m impressed by the new app Spritz, but reading is not an independent skill that can be understood just by self-reporting. It needs to be tested through speaking, (e.g., talk about what you read) writing (e.g. make notes), mark making (filling in blanks on a test), or actions (e.g., cooking a recipe).
Lie #2: I always read the same way, whether it’s a novel or lifeboat instructions on a sinking ship.
We each read different things for different purposes and in different ways. In the case of lifeboat instructions on a sinking ship, certainly the urgency of reading something quickly requires strategies. Strategies are approaches to problem solving and are part of conscious attempts. When we internalize strategies, such as how to best read a newspaper (e.g., not cover to cover like a novel) then we call them skills.
Lie #3: Adult learners learn to read for the same reasons I learned to read as a child.
Approaches and motivations are individual and differ by age. There’s also the misconception that we are either literate or not. Literacy–reading skills–are on a continuum, and the narrative of See Dick Run is not the same as instructions on how to repair a washing machine.
Lie #4: Like me, everyone loves to read bus schedules!
Everyone’s reading preferences differ, and differ throughout their lives. However, this is not an excuse to avoid reading things one assumes are outside one’s traditional reading territory. A few years ago, my friend Chris hounded me to read Master and Commander about sea battles during the Napoleonic wars.
I finally succumbed to opening the first book in the twenty-volume series … and was instantly hooked. I finished it over the weekend and on the way to the airport on Monday for a conference in Kyoto, stopped at three bookstores to pick up the next volume. Out of stock! In Kyoto, I checked in at my hotel and asked where the nearest bookstore was. At Junkudo, I found the next three volumes. I’ve now re-read the whole series four times.
Who would have thought it? Well, my smug friend Chris, actually.
Lie #5: I can teach English to immigrant adults because I used to teach kindergarten.
Curiously, this is what governments often believe in their rush to accommodate an unexpected influx of refugees. I first saw this during the Vietnamese boat people crisis when Canada welcomed thousands of Vietnamese escaping their homeland. In one class I attended, the class sat glumly repeating the retired kindergarten’s retelling of Goldilocks and the three bears. At the break, I spoke with a couple of the language learners whose English was clearly far beyond the fairy tale stage. What did you do in Vietnam?
“I was a doctor,” said one.
“A lawyer,” said another.
Approaches and content must be tailored.
Lie #6: I learned to read English, so learning to read in French, Arabic or Chinese is pretty much the same thing.
Learning to read in different languages has multiple challenges. It’s not just the orthography, or writing system for non-Latin alphabets, but the thought processes behind what is read and how it is read can also differ. It’s part of the idea that language is culture and that learning to read in a new language necessitates learning that culture as well. Not everything can be translated.
Lie #7: Like most adults, I don’t read as much as I used to.
Despite the proliferation of phones, laptops, tablets and e-readers, reading is up in book sales has actually increased in recent years. People read more than ever and in an ever-greater number of media. Most adults encounter about 100,000 words a day in various media, whether they like it or not. Many of these come in the form of advertisements, news and directions.
But what about that question of reading the wrong things? The answer is that it doesn’t matter. If kids want to spend hours reading comic books (or bus schedules) they are still going to pick up vocabulary, learn punctuation and sentence structure, ideas about genre, and so on. And maybe that same interest in reading will eventually transfer to 18th century novels, scientific discourse and works of philosophy that will make their parents proud.