The making of a “reader”

Are “readers” born, or are they made?

If they are “born” then no amount of instruction is going to make a difference.  But assuming a reader is “made,” how can schools best accomplish that objective?  In 1955 readability expert Rudolf Flesch published a seminal text that highlighted opposing educational philosophies, Why Johnny Can’t Read, and America is still bickering over how reading should be taught more than fifty years later.

I did enjoy books as a very young child.  My parents always took us to the library, subscribed to the newspaper, and had some books in our home – all factors that studies regularly cite as important for shaping reading behavior.  Coincidentally, my name also came from a character in a book, Mrs. Mike.  But I think that two key formative events, both of which happened around the time I was ten, were probably most responsible for turning me into a serious reader.

The first event was our neighbors’ gift to me and my siblings of their grown daughter’s old books.  A whole summer’s reading in a box!  Many of the books were about dogs and horses, two of my favorite subjects.  Several were Walter Farley novels (The Black Stallion, etc.), in which I completely lost myself.  Others were children’s novels that had been popular ten or twenty years earlier – a fact I discovered while visiting the home of a woman about ten years older than me and finding those familiar titles on the bookshelf that held her favorite childhood books.

The second important thing that happened was the habit of my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Fritz, to read aloud to us every afternoon for the last fifteen minutes of the school day.  The book was Treasure Island – a very exciting tale of pirates and adventure.  When the school year ran out before the book ended, I found it in the public library and finished it on my own.

Then I made a fortuitous connection that was really the starting point of my serious reading path.  We had the Authors card game, which was basically a packaged version of the “Old Maid” card game you could play with a regular deck.  (Now that I think about it, we played a lot of card games when I was a kid: “Slap Jack,” “Crazy Eights,” “Go Fish,” “War,” “Euchre,” etc.)  In Authors, instead of the usual sets of all four Aces, Jacks, Queens, etc., you had sets of four cards for each author.  Each author card had the writer’s picture and a list of titles at the bottom.  Instead of collecting sets of Aces or Queens, you would collect “books” of, say, all four William Shakespeare cards.

I knew that Treasure Island was one of the titles listed on the Robert Louis Stevenson cards.  That meant it was a “classic.”  You know: IMPORTANT.  But Treasure Island was also really, really fun to read.  And it made me wonder: Could maybe some of those other “classics” be good, too?

The Authors card game became my “shopping” list for trips to the public library, where my mom took us every couple of weeks.  I read the other Robert Louis Stevenson titles first, then moved on to Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the rest of the authors featured in the card game.

Not long ago my hair stylist asked me how I find the books I read.  The question took me by surprise . . . because books sort of find me!  My list of books stretches way off into the future.  I should live so long 🙂

But she got me thinking.  Why do so many people not read?  Maybe because they don’t have anything interesting to read, and they don’t know how to find a book they would enjoy.  I was lucky to have discovered a “book list” that was meaningful to me at an age when I was ready to advance to a higher level of reading.  But what if I hadn’t?

One of my former students, a returning adult in a couple of the classes I taught as a teaching assistant in grad school, told me that she had never been a reader until one day she bought Downy fabric softener that came with a Harlequin romance novel shrink-wrapped to it.  She had young children, didn’t work outside the home, and if I recall correctly, had not even finished high school.  She was not a strong reader, but she loved that book.  She bought more fabric softener and read another Harlequin.  Then she went to the library and got more Harlequins.

“Once you’re a reader,” she said, “you start meeting other people who read.”  Soon she was buying her own paperbacks, exchanging books with other women, and engaging in discussions about their shared reading experiences.  Then came huge leaps forward: she began reading books that weren’t romance novels and she decided to go to college.

Reading proficiency scores for school children remain dismal.  What if – instead of funding scientific studies about reading instruction or putting dollars into classroom technology like computers or iPads – what if, the government invested some of that money toward supporting talented authors of children’s and young adult books?

The first three Harry Potter novels occupied the top slots of Amazon’s bestseller list long before I had even heard of “The Boy Who Lived.”  During the Pottermania years, children convinced parents to take them to bookstores at midnight so they could buy the newest J.K. Rowling novel the minute it was allowed to be sold.  Even “poor” readers were devouring those books.  Like water seeking its own level, good books find their audience.

What if we focused on getting truly engaging books into the hands of children instead of putting our faith in the latest technology or arguing curriculum politics (i.e., phonics versus whole language)?  What if a significant part of every school day was set aside for kids to select and read whatever appeared interesting to them, including graphic novels?  What if students looked forward to that time as the best part of their day, as I did when Mrs. Fritz read us Treasure Island?  Suppose reading was . . . fun?

If students were regularly immersed in enjoyable books, might they not become more fluent readers – naturally?

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. My blog is a space for playing with ideas about creativity, innovation, lifelong learning, and the nature of "insight."
This entry was posted in Books and reading, WPLongform (posts of 1000 words or longer) and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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