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The Importance of Reading: A Reading Love Letter
Books made me a TCK (third-culture kid) before I became one in real life. The first book I remember most in becoming a person of another culture was Fairy Tales from the Arabian Nights. Lifting myself out of southern California through the words of the authors of these Middle Eastern tales, I was awed by Sinbad the Sailor, Ali Baba, and the Forty Thieves and, of course, Aladdin and the Magic Lamp. I loved walking in the souls of others facing their challenges and, over time, came to understand our connections. As a girl, I never imagined I would live my own Arabian nights, first through my father’s job first and then my own.
Even before I knew her as an author, books helped me live Katherine Paterson’s advice: “If you don’t read, you’ll only be as big as your own life and your experiences. Books give us other centuries, other cultures, all kinds of people that you wouldn’t otherwise know.” Reading has constantly expanded my world. Reading has been and continues to be my comfort, compass, and conscious. In times of loss and grieving, in periods of discernment, and to close each day, I turn to reading. I am always happiest when right in the middle of a big fat book.
Books and reading teach us that we are not alone. We go into ourselves when reading. But there we find another self – our reader self. The internal dialogues we have with the words of the author and ourselves are part awakening and part fellowship. It’s hard to feel entirely alone as a reader.
Lately, I have learned about some additional gifts of reading. New studies have identified very good news for readers, especially life-long readers. Individuals with high lifetime levels of cognitive activity show slower decline, despite the presence of underlying pathology (Jacobs, 2017). “Habitual participation in cognitively stimulating pursuits over a lifetime might substantially increase the efficiency of some cognitive systems,” writes a research team led by neuropsychologist Robert Wilson of Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center. This efficiency apparently counteracts the often-devastating effects of nervous system diseases. “Asking ourselves, can we do anything to slow down late-life cognitive decline, the results suggest yes—read more books, write more, and do activities that keep your brain busy, irrespective of your age.”
Knowing the essential vitality and utility of reading in our lives, here are a few of the essential experiences children need to flourish as readers and from the importance of reading and from their earliest years until they leave your home to head out on their own:
Let children read.
Engage the children you shepherd, whether teacher, administrator, or parent, in daily doses of reading with you and by reading on their own. This helps reading be something they own and look forward to each day. It becomes part of them and helps to shape their identities by fueling their passions and soothing the rough parts of life, too.
Books in hands. This is where it all begins. This is where it grows over time. From my forty years as an educator, especially as a literacy specialist, I have witnessed many reading wars and engaged in numerous passion fights myself to champion what I know as truth: We learn to read by reading. In this simple truth, I have supported and watched hundreds of children (thousands, in truth) bud and blossom as readers. The exact journey and timeline of reading learning wasn’t and isn’t the same for all children. But, from my observations and interactions, a few common factors have become vital patterns in successfully nurturing growing readers.
In the last year or so, the ugly reading wars have once again become fonder for argument and division. Worst of all, these fights are political, commercial, and drive learning and teaching into the desert of odd programs which provide children with little or no actual reading. I try not to let this crush my heart but I must admit that I am flabbergasted that we continue to fight with one another over methodology when common sense so clearly and vividly illuminates the truth – To grow readers, children need to read. Period.
Independent reading leads to an increased volume of reading. The more one reads, the better one reads. The more one reads, the more knowledge of words and language one acquires. The more one reads, the more fluent one becomes as a reader. The more one reads, the easier it becomes to sustain the mental effort necessary to comprehend complex texts. The more one reads, the more one learns about the people and happenings of our world. This increased volume of reading is essential
To grow readers, children need to be trusted and respected to select their own reading texts. To grow readers, thinking and understanding must be paramount in our instruction while also giving each child responsive doses of phonics and conventions. We withhold nothing, we model the problem solving of reading new words, we trigger thinking skills and strategies by revealing our own openly and compassionately.
Because best practice literacy instruction is not highly commercial, because we cannot monetize the workshop model – apprentice style teaching, we are vulnerable. But please hear this – Good teaching and meaningful learning do not come from a worksheet or drill exercise. In From Striving to Thriving, Stephanie Harvey and Annie Ward (2017) emphasize this fact on the very first page. They note that “four decades of research have established that voluminous, pleasurable reading is key to literacy development” (p. 9). Intentional, protected time for independent reading within the school day or class period allows students opportunities to practice reading skills in a high-engagement, low-stakes environment. Students have a choice over the medium through which they develop reading skills, fostering true engagement in the act of reading (NCTE, 2019).
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