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Why Reading Books Really Matters


My oldest daughter stuck a lapel pin into the bulletin board over her desk which reads, “School prepares you for life, which also sucks.” Cringe worthy, I know, but I imagine this sentiment is one that is commonly felt by many schoolchildren. No matter what we do to make school instruction engaging for kids, sometimes school is just school—an endless hamster wheel of assignments meant to prepare students for life as workers and contributors to society.

The past decade or so of standardized reading tests and cookie-cutter curriculum has done little to change students’ negative views towards school, and in my opinion, reading. Traditional reading instruction dissects literature into components for close scrutiny like a science experiment. No author writes so that readers can tear apart their words and look at the insides; they write books to explore the vast depths of human experience and knowledge.

Teaching reading like a science marginalizes writing as an art form and denies readers the opportunity to discover what reading is meant to accomplish. I doubt that Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Scarlett Letter so that generations of students could pick up a lesson or three on symbolism, or that Gary Paulsen wrote Hatchet so his readers would build dioramas of their favorite scenes. If reading is nothing more than a checklist of skills and strategies to master, what do we need books for? Let’s crank out a few hundred worksheets on the copier and call it a day. In too many classrooms, that is exactly what happens.

Hawthorne’s book is still relevant not for its teaching points, but because the shame, betrayal, and confines of society’s norms he explores still impact us. Paulsen’s book is more than a treasure trove of fun camping lessons; it is worth reading because it reminds us that we are capable of great courage and resourcefulness, even teenage boys.

It seems that while we fight to teach kids the skills they need to live, we have sacrificed those elements that make it worth living. The bland sameness of our days spent running, striving, and proving ourselves leaves little room for examining why life and our place in the world are remarkable gifts.

Where else but in our books and art can we express the beauty of the human spirit? How do we impart the wisdom of the centuries to our children? What lifts us up and inspires us to be more than the sum of our days? Life on the wheel provides few opportunities to celebrate the triumph and trials of our own humanity, but by reading books we can taste it for a time.

We read because we are lost and we are searching for home. We read because we feel isolated and need companions. We read because our lives have too little magic, wonder, heroism, laughter, or justice. We read because we need to believe in the basic decency of our fellows and some days we just can’t see it. We read because we need to learn from the mistakes of others. We read because we need hope that things will get better, true love exists, good can vanquish evil, and we do not have to be torn apart by our own failings.

This is why I must get my students to read. I want to hand them a map for the journey they must travel. I want them to realize that the measure of their worth is more than a paycheck stub. I want them to feel that life is not an endless march of drudgery and obligations; life is a quest for meaning— a search for who we are, why we are here, and what we offer each other. I want to place all of Mankind’s potential at their feet.

This is why reading books really matters. Reading reveals a better us and challenges us to reach for it.


Thanks for writing this, Donalyn. Thanks for putting into words what I feel about books, and especially about kids learning to appreciate books. I want to print out the last three paragraphs so that I can read them every day. I wish with all my heart that more people understood this. Thanks!!

What a coincidence! I blogged about a similar topic today, too. (Writing is about more than simply meeting the requirements for a grade.)

I also found a clip from Dead Poet's Society that discusses the same idea. I have the clip on my teacherweb page. Check it out if you have a chance.

Good topic.

Donalyn --- You have done it again -- gotten right to the heart of the matter. Books and writing books matter because people matter. If we are going to make a difference in the world, then we have to know who we are. We can take that journey to ourselves over and over again as we read and write. I would hate to have to narrow my identity down to a worksheet.

Wow, what a profound post on a topic that is of utmost importance to me. Thank you for sharing.

As always, Donalyn, you have spoken my mind with more eloquence than I could ever have. From one hamster to another, thanks for inspiring me to be a reader, writer, and teacher.

Thank you for this simply gorgeous post.

This is a beautiful reason to teach, and we all teach reading. I am greatful that I had the opportunity to learn to read at an early age, it is a gift that should be given to every child.

This is a wonderful post. It actually brought tears to my eyes. I especially like the part where you point out that authors don't write their books so people can break them down into scientific bits. They write to explore human feelings, failings and endeavors. We need more people who think the way you do. I hope this piece gets lots of attention!!! I'm certainly going to pass it along!

Dear Ms. Miller:

As a longtime teacher and teacher educator, who in the past wrote a book on children's literature, I agree strongly with the generalizations that you make about the worthiness of convincing childen to read books. However, for your advice to have any practical application, children must know how to read comptently. I mean must be able, while reading, to understand the ideas that any given author intended to convey. The least effective way to gain that goal is to assume that individual children must be empowered to invent any conclusion about a book that they desire. Going down that trip can have fatal intellectual consequences, children soon realize.

Patrick Groff, Professor of Education, San Diego State University

As a fellow book lover I was moved by your words, they express every book lovers thoughts and feelings. It is such a gift to be able to pass this love on to students.
I always love to read your entries because they almost always ring true to my own feelings and thoughts. I printed this post so I can share it with others and re-read it often. Thank you for your gift!

Ah, that life and education were so simple! I, too, would love to see all our students develop an enjoyment of reading. In order to reach that outcome, however, students must be given the tools to effectively do so. Those tools include the ability to accurately decode and process the text, whether it be for "work" or pleasure. While some students seem to have those tools intuitively, many others must given them through systematic, sequential, and explicit instruction. Our role as educators is to effectively identify and address each student's need. To do so, we, ourselves, must understand not only the final goal of reading but what it takes to reach that goal.

What I find so beautiful and hopeful in this post is the simple fact we remember the end goal. When reading this I was reminded why it is so important.

To those that reminded us reading is hard work and we have to teach decoding and processing, thanks. Hopefully we know that and are reminded of that often by our tests, our students, staff, and administration. But sometimes I think what we really need, is to remember why we do it and to tell the students why we do it. Let's remember there is meaning to what we do and this wonderful post does a beautiful job, Thank you.


I have passed along to you a groovy little award -- just a tiny token of appreciation for your continued brilliance.

Thanks a tonne and Keep on keeping on!

What a remarkable expression of what we should be teaching our children- the joy of reading. Instead we are forced to teach each story quickly focusing on one single objective and then rush on to the next so that they may score well on the selected response state assessment. No wonder they hate reading. I hope that someday we can start sharing our passion for the written word again! I hope that the creators of NCLB are reading your post.

Thanks for so eloquently writing about the need to keep the element of enjoyment in reading. AdLit.org offers a number of resources to help teachers, parents and librarians encourage adolescents to read for pleasure, including themed booklists, frequently updated book recommendations and fun activities and contests.

We agree that passing on a love of reading is one of the greatest gifts one can give, and hope you will check out our site for tools and suggestions.


The AdLit.org Team

I just discovered your blog and read several entries in a row. Like others, I find you speak my essential beliefs and give them wings with your words. I just pre-ordered your book and wish I did not have to wait until it is released!

How about we read because it it fun. That's why I read.

It takes an amazing teacher to teach the technical aspects, acknowledge the appreciation for the life lessons in a book and get her students to see it. I was lucky enough to be a student with excellent teachers. I am a education major and hope that one day I can be that amazing teacher for my students.

The students don't hate reading. They are bored with a constant repetive subject that cannnot hold their attention.

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