The Joy of Reading: is it really such a hard sell?

“We shouldn’t teach great books; we should teach a love of reading.” - B.F. Skinner

In the Chronicle of Higher Education Alan Jacobs raises the old "nature versus nuture" chestnut by stating that it's impossible to teach children to love reading.  Taken at face value, Jacobs may have a point.  After all, by the time a student reaches university, they've already decided what kind of person they are and attempting to "inculcate the practices of deeply attentive reading" or instill a 'love' is no easy task for a teacher, and may be outside the scope of a class built around a specific text or era.  But I have to say that I strongly disagree that genetics are the only indicator of a love of reading and that one either has the reading gene or they don't. Surely if a sense of humour is a learned trait, influenced by family and cultural environment, then a love of reading must also, at least partly, be learned. 

Deep love comes, not only with a natural inclination and innate capability for sustained attention to story, but also with positive experiences, ideally those that happen early.  I doubt that even the most dedicated genetic ("nature") proponent would argue against the notion that parents can influence a child's feelings towards reading.  Reading outloud, early, and with enthusiasm has got to have an impact on how children feel about reading.  Living in a household filled with books, enriched with off the cuff quotations, and where the pre-bedtime read-outloud moments are among the most enjoyable times in the day would have to make a huge difference over one where books are considered solely the province of academia - to be used for learning and not entertainment.  Once children make that all-important connection between 'story' - the magic of narrative and discovery, and texts, then the move to reading becomes a natural one.   

Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives ForeverOf course reading will be easier for some children than others, and that may well be genetically determined.  As Mem Fox argues beautifully in her book Reading Magic, it is incumbant on parents first, and then teachers, to share their own passions and help children and students make the link between those moments of joy when you immerse into story, and the 'book'.  Teaching of literacy has to be infused with love - love for the children and love for the books.  Inbue your teaching with meaning, reality, vitality and passion as Fox puts it and children will get it.

I personally started school with an innate great love of reading that was encourage and strengthened by my parents and their early praise of my reading and their own joy of the written text (and I still get that little frisson of pleasure when I read a book like Little Bear, Where the Wild Things Are, or Ping -- books that my parents read to me often when I was very young), but a few great teachers who shared my joy in books strengthened that love considerably.  The opposite also might have happened if I had been thrown into classes with bored teachers who passed on their dislike for what they were teaching.  Fortunately that didn't happen. To suggest that teachers don't have a truly powerful potential impact on children's love of reading is to severely and incorrectly I think, downplay the value of our teachers.  When my sons, both great book lovers, come home from school and tell me that English is boring, it makes steam come out of my ears and a tendency to reach for the phone to call the school.  Sustained dullness in a lesson that should be filled with drama, enthusiam and moments of self-recognition, self-expression and greater understanding (and of course laughter) will dampen and put back many a child's love of reading.  

By the same token, a wonderful teacher can change the way a child (or student) looks at books - enabling a connection between other forms of entertainment (after all, films and television are often based on stories; popular music is often built on poetry), and awakening a desire for more.  So let's not overplay the limitations of genetics and underplay the value of teaching.  A good teacher can indeed teach students to love reading, not by having "reading loving lessons", but rather by sharing their own enthusiasm for books, encouraging children in their attempts, and finding existing loves and linking those to the written text.  

Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.




3 comments:

  1. Maggie, this is an interesting article. I think parents and teachers have a great deal to do with conveying a joy of reading to children. My parents had a wall-divider bookcase, filled with books, when I was growing up. I now have bookcases in my living room and bedrooms. I always loved reading and I love and value books. What if there wasn't a bookcase in my home growing up - would that have mattered? I believe it would have.

    So, maybe it goes beyond reading to a child. Maybe, it's what's in the environment also. The combination is powerful.

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  2. I've seen my role as a homeschooling mother to provide a "buffet" for my children and obviously, books was on the menu. Only one of my adult children is an avid reader. Go figure! I suppose my situation is an example of genetic disposition. However, I also taught them to be life-long learners. Who knows, there may come a time when they enjoy books later on.

    I enjoyed your article, Maggie.

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  3. This is great information on the importance of fostering a love of reading by following all the points you've made. When a lot of reading goes on at home, a child picks up on that and learns by that terrific role model. A combination of all these influences, as you pointed out, can clinch a lifetime love of reading. Great post! I enjoyed it, thanks.

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