Today is Read Across America, and it’s important to remember it because it’s celebrations like this in schools that made me love books. But sometimes schools have the best intentions and the most awkward of methods, especially when it comes to younger kids. Here are a few things I think schools could be doing to make books more fun — and make them stick to kids like they should.
1. Allow kids to pick their own reads more often.
When kids are young, the most important thing is that they become comfortable with the practice of reading. But kids won’t get comfortable reading a story that they don’t want to read. The solution? Let them read anything they want. Yes, anything. This way, if one child feels uncomfortable and wants to start with something below his reading level, he can. And if you have a fourth grader who wants to reach for The Red Pony (like I did), he or she has the freedom to do it.
I don’t mean this all the time but as a part of an overall curriculum. I think the freedom of choice is one of the joys of reading, and too often it has been completely eliminated in English class. I’d just like to reclaim a little of it for some of today’s kids.
2. Start with the act of reading. Forget about how many pages you read.
Some kids read faster than others. That’s just how it goes. I myself am a fairly slow reader, so I can understand the frustration of the child who needs to read twenty pages and is still struggling an hour later.
So instead, for the younger ones, let’s make it about time. If every child spent a half-hour honestly reading ever couple days, they would probably wind up on different pages, but they would have spent enough time to get into their books. And hopefully, if they’re reading books they’re interested in, they’ll be hooked.
3. Provide more and better books for boys.
Yes, we have Goosebumps and we have a couple of great ones like Hatchet, but by and large I remember the best books we read in the classroom being ones that the girls liked better than the boys. Here I’m going to sidestep the argument about what gender roles kids should be learning and jump straight to how things are in the world today. Boys like action; they like sports; they like adventure. And there are plenty of good books like that (though there’s always room for more). Let’s bring a few more of those into the classroom. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t also have Little House on the Prairie, but we need more of a balance.
4. We need a little more modern literature.
I don’t mean to bash the classics. Shakespeare, Dickens, and James Joyce are great experiences for high schoolers, and it’s good to expose kids to literature that they won’t seek on their own.
But I can only remember reading one novel in all of my high school days that was written within the last 30 years. I know that the body of literature created before then is enormous and it needs all the time it can be given, but we also need to take time to remember those kids who are on the fence. Some of them won’t be turned on by Shakespeare.
The point here is not to always choose books that kids will like and that will be easy. The point is to make sure that in at least a few of the books kids read, there are characters with whom they can relate. I’m not asking to throw out half the reading material and replace it with Danielle Steele. I’m just asking for maybe one book per year to be written by someone who’s maybe still alive. I think it would help kids to remember that literature is a living, breathing thing that can encompass their lives, too, and not just the world of Elizabeth Bennett.
5. Give kids more context.
Teachers forget sometimes that kids come into these books blind. They need context to understand the world they’re reading about. Knowing what the world looked like during the Regency period is important if you’re going to follow Pride & Prejudice in the right way.
Occasionally teachers cheat on this one by just showing the kids a movie, but I think this is a mistake. One English teacher from my high school would literally paint the picture for us by explaining some the words unique to a period and drawing crude illustrations on the board when we didn’t get it. He never showed a movie in class, and yet he made all of us love A Tale of Two Cities by talking about Lucie Manette’s high forehead and Dickens’s identification with his character Charles Darnay — even Darnay’s name was vaguely similar to Dickens’s.
Happy Read Across America Day! If you have any comments or other ideas to add, please feel free to share!