Children and Reading

I continue to come across articles across the blog-o-sphere offering opinions and conjecture about what children are reading, what would be best for them and of course what kind of drivel seems to be en vogue for the most recent generation of youngins.

For me, I don’t necessarily care what kids are reading so much that too often the saying is “as long as they’re reading” is being used by way of justifying whatever it is all the kids are devouring far into the night.  It seems like a cop out, like a way of lowering standards and, honestly, I’m sick of that nonsense.  To be authoritative over what children read needs to be balanced, but some supervision and balance needs to be achieved here.  It isn’t so much that they’re reading something fun and pleasurable that bothers me, but the lack of push to read something that truly takes effort, knowing the rewards that are available from having done so and understanding what they were looking at along the way.  Don’t misunderstand me – I’m not saying kids shouldn’t read Judy Blume, Meyer or Rowling I just think these should not be the only things they’re reading.

I don’t know the perfect mix to even suggest, but it seems to me kids know how to read the words on the page but are potentially lacking in understanding the more complex uses of language as a result of this “at least they’re reading” mentality.  In school children have to learn mathematics and science as well as reading – why should the rigors of literature be any less an intellectual stretch than the others?  Learning should never be about punishment and that’s not what I’m advocating.  What I am advocating is discipline and perhaps parents and teachers working harder to expose kids to different pieces of literature.  A “try this” or “let’s read this together” or “ask me questions and I’ll help” approach would encourage interpersonal communication as well as persevering through a difficult volume.  This isn’t punishment, it’s learning and that is what seems to be sorely missing here.

Perhaps I’m going too far out on a limb today.  I am not a public school teacher, only ever taught piano lessons, and so do not claim any place of authority in the matter excepting what I hear and see.  Kids don’t seem to be encouraged to question or excel anymore and instead are dominated by the idea of doing things the easiest possible way to insure the work (learning) is done all the quicker.  Pleasure and id satisfaction seem to be the paradigm along with rote memorization and application of said factoids – not critical thought or analysis.  A friend of mine who is a professor of English, speaks to me of all the difficulties in working within a system that seems to be passing kids along without them learning much of anything.  She, however, teaches and pushes them,finding many are bright and very willing to learn – they just never had to before.  It speaks to a very great ill in our education system when a professor is left talking about how her students don’t know who our enemies were in WWII, or when a high school teacher says he is relegated to being a glorified babysitter (different friend – recent complaint).  Would pushing kids to read things they don’t like simply cause rancor for the written word?  For learning?  I don’t think so.  Not so long as the things they would seek out on their own in any field are not verboten.  What happened to encouragement to love learning?  Reading even more complex texts than Harry Potter or Twilight?

What say you, dear readers?  Am I totally off in Never-Never Land?  Should we be content in what ever kids choose to read/learn, so long as they’re doing it?

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28 responses to “Children and Reading

  • jan

    100 years ago when I was in school, we were given lists of books to read over summer vacation. some of them were dull but most stretched my imagination, gave me vocabulary, (sometimes I needed a dictionary by my side), and were doable. Whether or not I understood all the content is sometimes questionable. Sometimes adults think that young people should “get” life presented in the stories, but they forget that young people haven’t yet lived it. sometimes the plots were dull. But I was taken to many lands, shown perspectives on many different cultures, and ultimately stretched intellectually. BTW, I did get to choose 8 or 10 off the list.

    • kimberlyloomis

      Jan – I like that system a great deal. I can too readily recall the reading I did through high school and, even thought I could pick some of them, the list was paltry and unchallenging. I think the most difficult thing I had to deal with was Hawthorne, and that was only challenging to my high school mind because of his extreme verbosity in describing a tree. I wanted to snooze through it. The classes I also recall were not challenging for me, but I suspect that is also why I come at this from a place of some bitterness.

    • Merrilee

      I have to agree, now that I think back, that while a few of the books we read for Eng Lit in high school were painful, none of them were bad. Clockwork Orange, Catcher in the Rye, Brave New World, To Kill a Mockingbird…Years later I recognise their merit, even though they were just work at the time.

      But I’m glad they made me read them. So I guess I’m in favour of more assigned reading.

      • kimberlyloomis

        Merrilee – I’m quite envious of your reading assignments! Gosh darn it! I still recall the horrors of discovering Kafka (The Green Kitten scarred me) and the abysmal writing of “The House of the Seven Gables”. Nowhere did I get “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “Catcher in the Rye” but instead read them in the last year. Husband is still nagging me to read “A Brave New World”.

      • Merrilee

        Oh you really should read Brave New World. It is fantastic.

        I have never read Kafka, though I suppose I should! I was introduced to F Scott Fitzgerald, Arthur Miller and Richard Adams in high school as well. We had a very eclectic mix of texts 🙂

      • kimberlyloomis

        Merrilee- I’m envious of that eclectic reading list! I took a course called “World Literature” in which I read a few pieces by Kafka. You know, he was brilliant and incredibly disturbing. I have a whole book of his work but have yet to summon the courage to go through it. I do recall reading Arthur Miller, but no Fitzgerald. I’m thinking I need to rectify that. Any title you can recommend?

      • Merrilee

        My god, it’s been so long since I’ve read any of his work. No matter what people say, I’ve always been a fan of The Great Gatsby, but whatever you do, don’t read it when you’re feeling down 🙂

      • kimberlyloomis

        Lol! Good to know! I’ll be sure to not read it anytime real soon then. Getting tired of depressing stuff. 😉

      • Merrilee

        I just finished Tamsin by Peter Beagle – now that’s the sort of novel I would recommend for lower high-school. I enjoyed it immensely as an adult, and wow, what writing! What character growth!

  • Merrilee

    Well, I do take exception to you comparing Judy Blume’s work with Twilight 😉 But otherwise, yes, I agree with you. The school years are when we develop most of our ideas and preconceptions, and these tend to stick with us for the rest of our lives. Ready pulp at this stage does nothing to expand your mind.

    • kimberlyloomis

      Merrilee, I totally didn’t mean to do that. I loved Blume as a girl and imagine if I read her again now I would still like her. The stories always seemed to include very relevant messages for the girl growing up. And, Twilight, ugh… the grammar was utterly wretched never mind the unpleasant messages that one could glean from it. I still read all those books, though. 😉 I concur with your assessment, btw.

      • Merrilee

        Judy’s pretty amazing, isn’t she?

        I haven’t read Twilight, so I’m not qualified to comment on it. But Rowling was ok – at least there were lessons on friendship and bullying and courage. And the writing was servicable.

        I just read a review copy of a middle grade fantasy. The writing was so appalling, I would never want any child to get their hands on it. Vocabulary, grammar and spelling are essential for children’s books.

      • kimberlyloomis

        “The writing was so appalling, I would never want any child to get their hands on it. Vocabulary, grammar and spelling are essential for children’s books.” – That kills me. Really. Even reading some adult literature in the last year my mind has absolutely been blown away by the stuff that’s getting to market or, more accurately, the condition in which it arrives in. “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” is something more people should endeavor to read, imo. Not that my grammar is infallible, but still…

      • Merrilee

        I know! You expect publishers to at least have a basic knowledge of “good” writing, not just “popular” writing.

        It appalls me to realise that the people making the decisions in publishing now are from my generation. Are we really that bad at English?

        And I have taken over your comment trail, sorry 🙂 But very interesting discussion!

      • kimberlyloomis

        Merrilee – No need to worry! I love your comments! I’m sorry I didn’t get back to them sooner. 😦 And, like, oh my goodness I feel the same way about some of the stuff making its way into the world. I have no idea what premise so many people are operating under, but it would be very nice to read a book where it seems as though an editor, or whoever is supposed to, actually edited the darned thing for proper grammar. Ugh! Such a pet peave of mine these days!!! That I keep hearing people say “the industry serves as quality control” (in reference to the snobbishness about self-pubs) and I’m usually left with wanting to bang my head into a wall somewhere. If it was about “quality control” then “Twilight”, at the very least, would have been gone over with a red pen until the syntax was more complicated than what a second grader could do. 😛 [Sorry, obviously a source of great irritation for me. 😉 ]

  • Hart

    I am not an educator, but I do have two kids, 15 and 11, and I’ve got a psych degree, so my experiences parenting and my knowledge of human nature feeds in here.

    My daughter (the 15), the more reluctant learner in my family, is exactly like you describe this generation–she is an instant gratification girl. That said, I know for a fact that if I push too hard, she pushes back. If school pushes too hard, she shuts down. Rather than PUSHING, she needs to be TRICKED into trying new things reading-wise, and YES, any time she is voluntarily reading, it’s a success, even if it’s Twilight (which is VERY poor quality–though I take issue with you including Rowling and Meyer in the same universe). That said, I have brought her books to make her think, and she has read them–I watch for recommendations, and I look for themes I know appeal to her, but are just a notch up. It is a careful job.

    My son, I don’t worry about. He is a good reader, and reads a lot, and his teacher said very specifically (and I think this is good advice)–“you just make sure they are reading. I will make sure they get exposure to different kinds of things”.

    Because those little rebels, the teens and tweens, will just completely STOP if you make it unenjoyable.

    (I read to both nightly, lots of different stuff as kids. Those personalities win out in the end and they like what they like.)

    • kimberlyloomis

      Hart, I, too, have a degree in psychology! My child is only 2, however, and I can already see what you mean about the stubborn aspect even though I have yet to navigate the tumultuous waters of teenagedom (yeah, I made up that word). What impresses me is how involved you are with your children as well as your knowledge of how to best work with who they are. I think that is probably the big answer to the question I should have supposed to begin with: Is applying cookie cutter education techniques the real reason why kids seem to be somewhat lackadaisical when it comes to certain subject matters?

      I think the important aspect is to not handcuff a child to a book they’re reluctant to read, but to do as you do – find something along their interests and up it a notch to something more taxing than they might have chosen for themselves. This honors each individual while aiding in growth.

      I truly didn’t mean to imply a child should be sat in a corner reading “A Tale of Two Cities” for the sake of intellectual growth. That, I agree, would surely cause a child to steadfastly hold to their preconceived notions of dislike (or certainly have them as a result of guild by association).

      Thanks for your words!

    • kimberlyloomis

      Hart – I forgot to say this before, but I totally didn’t mean to imply the quality of Rowling and Meyer are equivocal, but rather their works are on par with the rapidity in which they’re each sought out and devoured. 🙂

  • Dawn

    Our current cultural climate “asks” children – not tells them – is that why we can’t get them to read? Is it related to the ‘whatever you do – as long as you *try* and we’ll give you a medal’ attitude that we’re passing on to our kids?

    We make every good book (and some notsogood ones) into movies? Is this exposure to great literature or just making ppl wait for the movie instead of going through the “trouble” of reading?

    I think there’s merit in the ‘as long as their reading’ philosophy (if its really the only way they’ll read…) but it needs to be used as a bridge to “better” literature.

    • kimberlyloomis

      Dawn – Very good point about the movies as well as the bridge technique. This is where I think the balance comes in. Is it possible to do such a thing in the system we currently have operating? The idea of doing something individually based to encourage growth of each person? If so, how? Are book reports the way to go (hated them, but now see the validity in their assignment), or should this be done through small groups and presentations?

      The movies are kind of killing me these days. It’s hard to be angry about industries seeing the ready gold mines out there with making certain books into movies, for better or worse (I still wonder how on Earth someone managed to make Twilight worse as a movie than the book), but I do wish there was a bigger concentration of original film than there currently is. Although I do maintain “Last of the Mohicans”, as a movie (either or both versions), is better than the book. Cooper could not write imo.

      I also want to give a big shout out on that “try and you get a medal” thing – it’s so painfully true.

    • Merrilee

      “whatever you do – as long as you *try* and we’ll give you a medal’ attitude”

      I hate that attitude, and it does nothing for kids when they grow up.

      • kimberlyloomis

        I remember getting a sportsmanship award when I was a kid – essentially I learned to be a great loser. Okay, perhaps that wasn’t what was implied by it, but ultimately it was because I had learned to not be a sore sport, winning or losing, and this is something more kids seem to not grasp in concept never mind action. And we all know, when you grow up you sometimes just lose/miss out on something you wanted really badly. It’s a lesson best learned when young then after someone rejects you for a job, college or even your manuscript.

  • Dawn

    And I agree with the pp 100% on rebellion. You can’t make any one person do anything, can you?

  • Elena

    Loved Judy Blume, I was going to express indignation that you put her in the same sentence as Stephanie Meyer, but see now that it was an unintentional comparison 😛

    I think the environment a child grows up in has a big influence on their reading style (obviously with exceptions — look at Roald Dah’s Matilda :P). But a child growing up in a house full of books, and books which are cherished by the parents and used as a sort of nourishment, are probably a little more likely to extend their reading into ‘better’ books. That being said, I didn’t really grow up in such a house, but apparently my big brother used to read to me when I was a baby …maybe that made a difference.

    I used to babysit 2 girs — an 8 year old and 6 year old — and our nighttime reading (their choices) included The Witches by Roald Dahl, Treasure Island and Peter Pan.

    Now that is setting them up for some awesome reading.

    I don’t know what this makes me by saying so, but I think ‘kids reading more’ should start with the parents. Education systems that encourage quality reading are great, and I like other people’s ideas, but if they’re growing up with parents like Matilda’s, what chance do they have (not everyone’s a child genius :P)

    • kimberlyloomis

      Elena – I’ve been thinking about Dahl’s works lately – particularly Matilda. Sadly, I think that was the best thing I remember reading through all my schooling days – and that was in fifth grade. 😛 Okay, that and “Witches”. Both of them will always be favorites of mine.

      There is some truth to this being about what kids are exposed to at home – at this point in time my two year old likes to sit across from me holding a book and “reading” out loud. Pretty sure that’s because I read to him all the time and he sees me reading a lot as well. The most advantageous environment for children, I think, is to have both excellent educators as well as a good support system; it’s just unfortunate both don’t seem to happen the majority of the time.

      [About those comparisons – I have learned to definitely NOT edit blog posts at 11:30 at night again. Ever. 😀 ]

  • Merrilee

    “I don’t know what this makes me by saying so, but I think ‘kids reading more’ should start with the parents.”

    AMEN.

    I will never blame my son’s reading choices on his educators. That’s my job, not theirs.

    • kimberlyloomis

      I like those words as well, Merrilee (and Elena!). Good habits can not exist in a vacuum. If it’s supported at school and treated with derision at home, where then do the good lessons go? Education needs to be something considered as a necessary requisite of parents to get involved in as well. At the same time – the system, it needs some tweaking. 😉

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