The Importance of Reading

Some interesting thoughts on the importance of reading; specifically, what needs to be changed with the way that reading is taught to our students. (Link courtesy of Andrew Sullivan, “The Importance of Reading”).

Porter University Professor Helen Vendler advocates for a change in the approach of how learning is taught, over at Harvard Magazine (“Reading is Elemental”).

I like reading. I want my children to one day be avid readers, because I share the opinion that reading is the foundation for all learning. Sure, one could split hairs about the definition of reading, but the general idea is straightforward enough in “Reading is Elemental”:

“Without reading, there can be no learning. The humanities are essentially a reading practice. It is no accident that we say we “read” music, or that we “read” visual import. The arts (music, art, literature, theater), because they offer themselves to be “read,” generate many of the humanities — musicology, art history, literary commentary, dramatic interpretation.”

Vendler even proposes an outline her own personal utopian view of a reading curriculum for elementary students, which would involve as many as 14 different 20-minute periods of reading. As a thought experiment, it’s something to mull over. The basic idea: expose young readers to more reading, making it easier and thus more enjoyable in order to instill a love of reading at a young age. In this case, the “what” is probably less controversial than the “how.”

Most interesting to me was this other thought on how young students learn to write:

“And since the best way to create good writing is by a child’s unconscious retention of complex sentence-patterns and vivid diction from reading, the act of writing — when it is introduced in the classroom — is not a matter of filling in blanks in workbooks, but rather a joyful form of expression for the child. After all, in the past, people always learned to write from reading books. Breaking writing down to “skills” subverts the very process of absorbing the written language unconsciously as one reads, an indispensable inner resource when one turns to writing.”

Vendler is not a fan of workbooks and similar types of modularized learning, which break up the practice of writing into small bits that are too unlike ‘natural’ writing. That certainly got me thinking: what sort of books would I want to assign to students first learning to write? What could an ideal ‘diet’ of readings be for young students to give them their first glimpses of what writing could be?

To be fair, Vendler points out she is looking at the results ‘downstream,’ but the after all, the poor reading problems that frustrate and demoralize university professors should be dealt with at much, much earlier ages. It’s far from spinning our collective wheels to ask serious questions about what isn’t working with the current teaching of reading, and what could be done to try a better approach:

“But since what is in place has failed notoriously to make our younger students eager to read, proficient in reading, and drawn to the conceptual world of learning, it is time, it seems to me, to try to generate a reading practice that will lead to a future for the humanities and all other advanced reading. I have never taught elementary school and grant that I wouldn’t know how to do it. I only see the results downstream, and wish that reading at the earliest levels provided better preparation for the higher-level intensity of the humanities.”

Now, I have in fact done some elementary teaching, and what surprised (and delighted) me was that students who may not have been avid readers would and could dive right into relatively difficult books, if they cared about the story. A young student’s enthusiasm for reading is the easy part — what’s more difficult is how schools and teachers and parents are going to ensure that natural enthusiasm becomes a lifelong passion.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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