I've loved reading literally as long as I can remember. I would bring whatever book I was devouring to lunch and prop it against my milk carton in elementary school, sit outside a classroom during passing period focused on the page in front of me in high school. I was that kid, you know, the one who would rather curl up under a tree with a good story than play kickball at recess.
Not everyone grew up loving reading the way that I do, and I firmly believe that's because they just aren't reading the right thing. I believe this because I've experienced it for myself - and witnessed it firsthand as a teacher.
Right after college, I spent two years living and teaching in eastern Kentucky with the most intrepid, brilliant, and spunky group of 12-year-olds I had ever met. I did this through Teach for America, a non-traditional teaching program which places college graduates and professionals in high-need areas for two years to teach.
I came to the classroom with no background in teaching (like, at all). I hadn't been around kids in 6th grade since I was, well, in 6th grade. I was supposed to teach social studies, which is very interdisciplinary, so we did a lot of reading and writing as well.
Any teacher will tell you that reading is one of the most important skills kids need to learn. You don't have to want to be a novelist to appreciate the importance of the skill - we read things every single day when we drive our cars and order food in restaurants. However, it's also a skill many of us take for granted; we forget (or repress) the struggle and challenge that was learning to read in the first place.
Many people have argued that technology like computers has made it much easier for kids to read: because they spend time on the internet, they see a lot of words every day, which means they're exposed to a lot of different language and nuance passively. However, I think we can all agree that the internet doesn't always follow proper grammatical and spelling rules; so, if the internet is the primary way you get exposed to words, you're not learning all the things you need to.
It also makes it challenging to engage students in reading. I struggle with this as an adult - videogames are so stimulating. A good videogame engages your auditory senses with music, sound effects, and/or dialogue; your visual cortex through graphics; and the creative parts of your brain through action and storytelling. Books only have words on a piece of paper, which is generally much less immersive.
These challenges don't change the fact that reading books is critical to development, they just complicate it. When I was teaching, I tried to help kids learn to love books by empowering them to read about the things they loved.
I did this by using positive reinforcement. My classroom revolved around Big, Hairy, Ambitious Goals (BHAGs, a play on big, hairy, audacious goals), things we as a class working to achieve. To help incentivize my students to achieve our goals, I used a system of tickets.When I caught them doing something good - volunteering to answer a question, catching errors or mistakes I made, helping a classmate unprompted, winning a competition, and so forth - I gave them a ticket. Then, they could save their tickets for different prizes.
The biggest prize, worth 4 tickets, was their own book or map. They found a book/map they wanted on Amazon, and I'd order it for them and give it to them, no strings attached (yes, I hustled with the fundraising on this one).
This was really powerful for students, for two reasons. First, I worked in an area that struggled with poverty, so many of my students did not often get to purchase things for themselves. Second, it empowered them to to discover and then read about things which were exciting to them. My kids were stunned that they not only got a book of their own to keep, but that it could be on any school-appropriate topic (or, as one of my students put it, "not a boring school book").
In two years, I bought over 200 books for students on pretty much any topic you can imagine. I had one student who saved all year to get all 7 Harry Potter books because she'd always wanted to read them; another who collected three different world record books (including the world's "grossest" records); and a third who got a book on being a veterinarian, since that was what she wanted to be when she grew up.
Reading is important. Read what you're passionate about. If you get bored reading biographies, pick up a sci-fi or fantasy book. If that's too out-of-this-world, grab a history book or mystery. But please, keep reading.
Bridget is the author of Summer Twilight, available for purchase now!