The research tells us that it is important to read to children – that children who were read to on a regular basis generally outperform children who were not read to regularly, both during school and later in life. But since when has research ever convinced anyone? If it did, we would no longer be having debates about evolution, about man’s impact on climate, or about the health benefits of eating chocolate in small doses at least thirty-seven times a day. Clearly, science has no place in any modern debate – it’s all about what we feel in our guts. Just look at the current political landscape . . . I rest my case.
My gut tells me (and luckily, the research backs me up as well) that I like to read because I was read to as a small child. Being read to on a regular basis, not only made me a quicker study of the reading process and ultimately a more fluent reader, it also imbued me with a feeling that reading was one of the best ways I could connect with the people I love. Practically the only moments during my childhood where I had my mom’s complete and undivided attention were when she was reading to me and when I was about to do something that was likely to get me killed and cost her a whole lot of money. In the first case, the experience was usually associated with the warm comfort of my bed, the soothing tones of my mother’s voice describing the friendship between Frog and Toad, and the reassuring feeling that – if only for a few moments before sleep – there was an escape from the anxiety and unhappy endings of the real world. In the second case, there was lots of screaming and occasionally a spanking. So I suppose you can guess which kind of experience has proved a strong motivator to read whenever I get the chance.
I love reading because it reminds me of the bond I had with my mother before I became a teenager and realized that being snotty and insecure is a much better way to cement relationships. I love reading because it gave me a reason to talk with my favorite aunt who always bought me ice cream and asked what I was reading before she handed me something new to explore from her extensive library. I love reading because it connected me to the friends I still have from high school. I love reading because even growing up in Kansas, a state not known for the erudition of its citizens, the houses of all the smartest people I ever knew had whole rooms devoted to books and I wanted to be just like them when I grew up and eventually got a house (or a double-wide trailer) of my own.
So I think the secret to getting kids to read is getting them to associate reading with the things and the people they love. Of course, this happens most readily when we are very young and still very dependent on love and nurturing from our parents, but what happens if our parents didn’t read to us, if no one from our early years connected with us through literature? Do we then we find other ways to connect with the people around us, the people we love and who love us? Perhaps we do it by watching TV during dinner, if that was how our parents showed us that people bond. Or maybe we do it through our phones, through social media, if that is how we see other people connecting. It seems that sometimes, if our parents didn’t show us better ways to connect and communicate, we do it through shouting for attention or insisting that everyone give us exactly what we want. Then maybe we grow up and we don’t read anything longer than a Facebook post or a Twitter announcement because reading never had any deeply-felt rewards attached to it.
So as a teacher, what should I do now with a classroom full of teenagers who were not read to when they were little, who have no interest in reading because it doesn’t remind them of quality time with family members and it doesn’t seem to offer them better times with their friends? Who don’t see reading as offering any significant enjoyment or advantage in their immediate lives? Do I just push forward with a curriculum full of texts that offer only misery and boredom to my students and cause them to feel more disaffected than they already do? Or do I take them back to a time in their lives when perhaps they missed the opportunity to read or have read to them the stories that teach us how to survive into adulthood, the stories that stay with us our entire lives? Can I take them back to a time when reading was supposed to help them connect with others? Can I help them resuscitate the ill-formed bonds that have since withered into disinterest or antipathy?
I think I can. And even if it turns out I can’t, it’s still worth a shot because much of what we are doing now in class is not working.