People who don’t like reading

The Economist has a brief, interesting story about improving reading levels among British school children through a new plan that offers six-year-olds four months of everyday 30-minute one-on-one reading sessions.

At more than £2,000 ($3,900) per pupil, Reading Recovery is not cheap. But it may be a sound investment. The KPMG Foundation, a charity that has been paying for Reading Recovery in some schools, reckons that each child who leaves primary school unable to read will go on to cost the taxpayer at least £50,000 in specialist teaching in secondary schools, dealing with truancy, paying benefits to adults who are more likely to be sick and jobless, and the fall-out from increased crime.

The most interesting passage, however, comes at the end of the article:

International research tends to find that by the time British children leave primary school they are reading well by international standards, but read less often for fun than those elsewhere. Tellingly, the inspectors said that when they asked why it is good to be able to read, children were more likely to say that it would help them to do well in tests or get a good job than that reading was enjoyable.

This matters not only because children who are keen on reading can look forward to lifelong pleasure, but because loving books is an excellent predictor of future educational success. According to the OECD, being a regular and enthusiastic reader is more of an advantage than having well-educated parents in good jobs.

If we had a sure-fire way for teaching people to enjoy reading, it wouldn’t be such a big problem, of course. I came to love reading largely thanks to a couple teachers I had in high school, though I believe the general trend is for people to become readers readers in early childhood because they grow up with parents who read in a household filled with books. The other model for becoming a reader that Stanford’s Shirley Brice Heath identified is that of the social isolate, who finds the world somehow inadequate and seeks refuge and greater experience in books. I definitely fall into this latter category, and find myself a little embarrassed to admit that when I was 12, reading was probably the least cool thing you could do.

Anyhow, the point I would like to make is the sense that reading is only good for utilitarian purposes–a means to an end–is a significant problem with education in America today. I remember how frustrated I was, even at a young age (ten, eleven) when teachers would justify their assignments and materials by saying that it would prepare their classes for next year. In middle school, everything was designed to prepare students for high school. In high school, everything touted as preparation for college. In college, I was disgusted by students who were obsessed with preparing themselves for careers. Preparation is fine and all, but what our educational system fails to instill and develop in students is a love for learning simply for the sake of learning. And what you end up with is population of adults that doesn’t read or learn at all unless the material is going to get them a raise, which seems okay on the surface but, when you think about it, basically crushes all creativity and innovation that inevitably comes from having a wide background of knowledge.

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