Saturday, August 20, 2011

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

Last week, 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. 


  1. Well - our two teenagers grew up in more or less the same environment: our home! I say more or less because childrearing can never be identical for all the kids in the same home. They have different personalities, tendencies and so forth. They have a birth order. They have gender. They have peer influences, and they have a host of other similarities and differences that push them every which-way.
    One of them reads like it's going out of fashion. The other acts like it already has. One reads paperbacks, the other samples on-screen. One loves fiction, the other thrives on fact. What did we do in their infancy? Yes, we read to them, but mostly we taught by example. We both read a lot. Different things sometimes. Our house is like a remainder warehouse - books everywhere. But one of our children hasn't taken on the 'love' - it might surface later, but for now there are more urgent things in that growing mind: the gathering of facts to fill a future.

  2. I came across your post while looking for responses to Jacobs' article. Today I posted about his thoughts and I mention your post as well. My take: it's possible that we can't really teach a love of reading, but maybe we can teach a willingness to take it on? You'll find the post here: