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Reading, What's Love Got to Do with It?

Can you teach students to love reading? According to an Alan Jacobs, an English professor at Wheaton College, you can't. In an excerpt from his book, The Pleasure of Reading in an Age of Distraction, appearing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jacobs claims that, "...the idea that many teachers hold today, that one of the purposes of education is to teach students to love reading--or at least appreciate and enjoy whole books--is largely alien to the history of education. And perhaps alien to the history of reading as well." I have always believed that you can teach a love of reading and many of the teachers, librarians, and parents I know think you can, too. So, imagine my discomfort when after reading Jacobs' article, I realized that I agreed with him.

Are you surprised?

Defining "readers" as elite members of "the reading class" who "read lengthy and complicated texts with sustained, deep, and appreciative attention," I agree with Jacobs when he says, "the extreme reader, to coin a phrase, is a rare bird indeed." If the only people considered readers are those individuals who dedicate themselves to contemplative, intensive study of great literature, I don't think there are many readers. My school librarian, who reads several books a week and crowed to me yesterday that she finally made it to the top of the library reserve list for Janet Evanovich's Sizzling Sixteen, isn't a reader. My friend, who reads The New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times on a regular basis, isn't a reader. Although I have read almost 300 books this year, have ten bookshelves in my house, and spend more money at the bookstore than the shoe store, I'm not a reader. If you are not spending most of your time reading meaningful works of literary value, you aren't a reader, either.

At this moment, my 12-year old is reading and annotating Eoin Colfer's Airman, which is the assigned summer reading text for her seventh grade Pre-AP English class. My husband and I both read Colfer's science fiction epic and consider it a great book, but I doubt after scrawling endless marginalia on foreshadowing and characterization that my daughter will remember Airman fondly. Not every reading event needs to turn into a scholarly exercise. Not every book demands it, and I think it is intellectual snobbery to imply that the only books that are worth reading are those that need to be critically analyzed and slowly digested. For too many adults (and children), dissecting classics and enduring countless days in a classroom discussing every paragraph of a book is exactly why they hate reading and see it as a chore. Like Jacobs, I agree that people who survive this practice and still enjoy reading are uncommon.

Jacobs' stance evokes the need to reflect on my definition of teaching, too. If we see teaching as the design and delivery of lessons which result in students' mastery of targeted learning objectives (don't laugh, a lot of politicians define teaching this way), then no, I don't think you can teach children to love reading. We also cannot say taking care of a pet teaches responsibility or that volunteering at the soup kitchen teaches charity. Much of what we learn in life comes from the people around us and our societal norms and values. Teachers and the other adults in children's lives serve as role models and mentors of acceptable and desired behaviors. Teaching reading, in my mind, includes fostering and promoting reading habits and role modeling a reading life for children. As Proverbs 22:6 charges us, "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it." Talking with hundreds of adult readers during my travels, most credit at least one person in their lives--a parent, grandparent, sibling, teacher, librarian, or friend--who nurtured and encouraged their love for reading at a pivotal stage during their childhoods.

Reading an excerpt of his book probably does Alan Jacobs a disservice. Looking at the publisher's description, it seems that his book is meant to support and encourage readers who may not have found a love of reading. Unfortunately, some people will simply skim the published excerpt, use the article title as a slogan, and make broad generalizations from it--exactly the type of surface reading that Dr. Jacobs criticizes. Perhaps, I have done this, too. I did read the article--closely and with great attention several times--I promise. Whether or not you agree with Alan Jacobs, I know that one of the reasons he sees so few readers in his college classes is because we don't send many readers his way.

Does every child in my classroom love reading when they leave? No. I am not naïve enough to believe this. Has every child who sits in my class experienced an environment that makes this love a possibility? Yes. As I design my lesson plans for the upcoming school year, I consider lessons about the habits of readers, the language of readers, and the skills that readers need. What I also teach--through my actions, attitudes, and classroom conditions--is what a reading life looks like and the value and pleasure that reading brings.

Thinking about my students, I remember Kim, who was in my class seven years ago. Kim had recently moved to Texas from Hawaii, where her father had been stationed. Kim was heartbroken about leaving Hawaii and hated Texas. Talking with her during class, I struggled to uncover a topic that interested Kim enough to write about it, until our conversation revealed that she loved to swim. Kim's eyes lit up when she talked about swimming. She learned to swim when she was two. Her family spent most of their free time swimming, surfing, snorkeling, playing in the sand, and exploring the beaches around her home. Kim showed me several pictures of her family and in every photo--Kim was in a swimsuit. Kim's parents didn't make a concerted effort to teach Kim to love swimming, but they did provide the encouragement and environment that made this love possible. I am not sure that Kim would have developed her love for swimming in Kansas (without access to a swimming pool).

If there are few people in the reading tribe, I would ask whether or not many children receive the same opportunity Kim did. Do most children grow up in environments where reading is a desired behavior, a cultural norm? Do most children have reading role models? Do most children have the opportunity to read for sheer pleasure? Do we value all types of reading and embrace all types of readers? Do we expect children to read a lot? If not, then we exclude most children from developing a love of reading at all.

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