By Kathy Collins
Will you take a moment to think of someone you admire as a reader? As you gather your thoughts, I’ll share mine: I immediately think of two long-time friends. One reads voraciously, as if they are satisfying hunger. They read widely across genres and topics; their critiques and opinions about books are compelling and thought-provoking, often affecting my perspective and my reading lists. They are also book pushers – recommending and passing along texts they’ve loved or that they think I’ll love.
My other person COMMITS – for him, reading is laborious and requires enormous focus, but even so, he makes time for it and reads deeply about anything of interest. Coyotes – he read so much in a short time that he has become a cocktail party coyote expert. Medieval Japan? He’s read on this topic for years – something that has nothing to do with his daily life and everything to do with his curiosity. He says that the act of reading isn’t exactly pleasurable, but its results are rewarding.
So, now, who are the readers you admire? What are the characteristics you find admirable?
I ask about this during certain workshops. As teachers turn to each other and share, we listen to stories about the best friend who goes to readings by every single author (emphasis on single) at the independent bookstore in her town, whether or not she has interest in the featured book, saying that’s how she makes her best discoveries (and potentially a love connection). We hear about people with self-driven reading pursuits and projects, like the teacher who shared that her wife wanted to build a deck on their house. She read every house magazine, blog, and resource on DIY deck design and building.
We hear about the wide variety of social lives around reading, including stories of a grandma who has been faithful to the same bible study for fifty years, a big family who gifts already-read books when they get together for the holidays, and a couple who fell in love during their bookstore cafe courtship and created a ritual of seeking independent bookstores wherever they travel. But mostly, the reasons we admire others as readers are less Hollywood-ending or rom-com meet-cute. Often we admire others for the simple reason that they manage to read – like the teacher who shared the story of a colleague’s reveal: she hides out from her family in the guise of ‘using the bathroom’ which this teacher found admirable because it proved her valiant commitment to reading at least a little bit each day.
Nobody has ever shared their admiration for their best friend’s SAT score. Nobody has talked breathlessly about their husband’s reading level or their sister-in-law’s self-correction ratio. I’ve never heard anyone say they admire a colleague because they read super-hard books nor has anyone expressed awe for a neighbor who is fabulous at predicting. Nobody has ever named a lover who has amazing reading stamina. Actually, come to think of it, nobody in my workshops has ever even said “lover.”
When I work in pre-school to middle school classrooms, I’ll sneak moments here and there to ask children a version of the question, “Who is a reader you admire, and why?” Again, I’ve collected responses, and here are the kinds that tend to recur. (Fig. 1.2)
The differences between the children’s responses and those of adults are revealing. While adults tend to appreciate characteristics of a person’s reading life and reading habits, the kids seem to admire readers based on their perceptions of reading strength and skill, characteristics that are, in some ways, more quantitative: reading speed; book level; page count, and test scores. Children also reveal their sensitivity to and awareness of who’s getting what kind of instruction, who’s being hauled off for extra reading help, and who’s praised or left unnoticed by the teacher. Finally, children often admire another based on what kind of book they’re reading- the more chapters and pages, the more to admire.
It’s rare for a child to name a characteristic they appreciate about someone else’s reading life, the way they think about texts, or their habits around reading. Children’s responses reflect what they believe is valued in school and suggest that so much of our reading instruction is focused on how to read, skill-wise, and most of what kids know and admire about each other is what they read, level-wise.
There’s another question that I ask teachers at the beginning of certain presentations. I’ll ask them to take a moment to think of something they’ve read that continues to matter to them in some way.
Teachers’ responses often include texts or characters from books that have had been instructive or helpful at particular moments in their lives. For example, one teacher named three titles she has read over a stretch of time – a novel, a memoir, and a self-help/affirmations type of book – that deal with the death of a partner because that’s her ongoing journey. Another teacher asked if songs count and said she has a playlist of songs with lyrics that have spoken to her in different times in her life. Someone talked about how a particular book changed how she viewed her twin brother’s wife and has had a profound and lasting effect on their relationship…for the better.
Adults often cite texts that remind them of a time in their lives. For example, one teacher named DaVinci Code, explaining that she wasn’t usually attracted to that genre or type of book. It was left behind in a youth hostel where she was staying. She read it, just because it was there. Now, years later, every time she thinks of the book or hears a reference to it, she is immediately transported to a time in her life when she was unencumbered, traveling on her own, seeing the world. Another teacher named his grandmother’s old-timey cookbook, saying that he keeps the cookbook because it’s full of his grandmother’s margin jots about the recipes. This book matters to him because it connects him to her. As you might expect, when I’m in classrooms, I’ll ask children, “What’s a book that really matters to you, that sticks with you, and why?” Here are some responses that are most typical:
Although this is certainly not a scientific study, I can vouch that a large number of children just don’t know what to say or how to answer, or at least they don’t have the title or recollection of a text of personal significance right there on the tip of their tongues. When children do name books, they often cite the one they are currently reading in school.
Children’s responses about significant books are, again, qualitatively different from what adults say. Please know that in highlighting the contrast, I am not belittling children’s responses. Nor do I expect (or hope) a six year-old will respond like a sixteen year-old, or a sixteen year old will respond like a sixty-year old. A child’s unfiltered response is worthy of our respect and consideration, as is. The important reason to attend to the contrast in responses between adults and children when asked about texts of significance is because of what it reveals about children’s understandings of the purpose of books and other texts and act of reading.
Most grown-ups tend to name texts that have insinuated themselves into their lives, even though these texts may have been read long ago. Usually, adults name texts that matter because they inform or inspire, provoke or evoke, challenge or comfort, transport or affirm, and so on.
Many children, especially in elementary school grades, name books that epitomize an achievement, and by this, I mean books that show off reading growth with respect to level or reading status. One story this tells us is that for a great many children, the primary function of books is to serve as ladder steps enabling them to climb to higher levels, and what they (and the adults around them) value is the level or the achievement more than the impact that book had in their lives. Another story this might tell is that children haven’t yet had time and space in the rush through curriculum and frenzied scramble through levels to even consider significance or what it feels like when a book really matters. That would require a bit of slowing down and lingering. Who’s got time for that?!
Another story children seem to internalize about what makes a book significant is that the harder the book, the better the book and, therefore, the better the reader. There is status and an intellectual aura conferred upon children who, for example, read chapter books in early grades, who read thick, page-dense books in upper grades, and who read edgy or content-mature books in middle school.
If these are the reasons books matter to kids, well, then these reasons matter, partly because they illuminate how important it is for our instruction and our classroom environment to provide opportunities for children to internalize more and varied stories about Reading Lives and about how engaged readers pursue, acknowledge, and hold on to texts that matter to them.
One of the stories that seems to be missing, for many kids, is that text significance lies not in the size or level or page count of the text they’re reading, but in the effect the text has on them, the response it inspires, the human connections it forges, the understandings it facilitates, the empathies it enables, or, simply, the way a text, a character, a series can become part of or change the stories of their lives.
I want to be clear, though. It’s not that we need to expect many six year-olds to say that Knuffle Bunny matters to them because it’s an incisive commentary on personal responsibility, nor for ten-year olds to say that The Diary of a Wimpy Kid opened their eyes to the idea of white male mediocrity. Instead, something we can hope for is that children can name books that matter to them, and when asked why, children will declare, with enthusiasm:
“Because I Like It” is not to be underestimated.
When children say a book matters to them because they like it, it may sound like a quick, simplistic, superficial response, and, as a consequence, it’s undervalued. But the truth is that being able to name texts one likes is the necessary and humble beginning to becoming someone who chooses to read, has favorite texts and authors, and identifies as a reader. ‘Because I like it’ books and other texts can be the launch point of an activity, passion, hobby, inquiry, vocation or habit that can grow big and important in one’s life.
It’s worth our teaching time to nurture children’s dispositions to fall in love with texts, authors, genres, series, and so on. In addition, it’s also vital to provide opportunities for children to articulate why they love a particular thing as well as the process for how they fell in love with it. When kids’ processes for falling for a text are shared out loud, the act of falling for a text is more easily or likely to be replicated with another text or by another child.
In 2007, 2012 and again in 2017, the National Endowment for the Arts released a report including data about adult pleasure reading habits, which Dana Gioia, then Chairperson of the NEA, described as “the most complete and up-to-date report of the nation’s reading trends, and perhaps more important – their considerable consequences.” (2007).
The report does several things. Drawing from data gathered from many different sources and studies, it details a story about reading volume and reading proficiency among the nation’s adult population. I want to acknowledge that these points are debatable if we stretch the definition of reading from a narrow focus on reading words to also include reading visual texts, and when we expand the boundaries of reading terrain from book reading and literary texts to include on-line content, alternatives to books, and texts that are not considered literary. Furthermore, we have to ask who is defining reading proficiency, and the corollary question, who benefits from the definition? Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that a report compiled in 2007 or even 2012 couldn’t possibly include comprehensive data about digital reading habits associated with tablets and smart phones and other devices, the impact of social media on reading, and adults’ interactions with the newer text types, including memes, gifs, posts, blogs, tweets, quick videos, etc. In any case, the volume and proficiency of adult readers (and associated debates around these matters) are not the parts of the report that I will focus on.
The report shares correlations between adults’ pleasure reading, also referred to as voluntary reading, and its relationship with other measures of adult lives. According to the data, there are clear indications of the importance of having a voluntary/pleasure reading life as an adult and the potential consequences of not having one.
Mr. Gioia writes, “Whether or not people read, and indeed how much and how often they read, affects their lives in crucial ways.” According to the NEA study, engaging in pleasure/voluntary reading as adults correlates with several things, including academic and economic success, more participation in cultural activities and events, higher civic engagement, and, wait for it, increased exercise!
I want to acknowledge two things. First, that old saying, “correlation does not mean causation” needs to be applied here. In other words, just because data show that having a pleasure-reading life correlates to more civic engagement, it doesn’t mean that pleasure-reading is the cause of civic engagement, or that participating in the civic life of one’s community is caused by reading for pleasure.
I’m sure we all know people in our lives who may not read for pleasure but who regard voting as a sacred act; or someone who would never choose to read, given an hour of free time, but who performs as a mime every weekend in a local park and who co-founded the International Organization of Juggling Mimes in Parks – or something artsy like that.
Obviously, having a pleasure reading life isn’t the singular pre-requisite for civic engagement, cultural event participation, exercise, or higher salaries. It’s just that a pleasure reading life strongly correlates with these things among survey respondents, which included thousands of adults of varied race, ethnicity, socioeconomic levels, educational attainment, and so on.
So, my read on this report goes like this: Sure, the report is a decade old, and yes, there are likely to be some reliability and validity issues, as there are for many studies, but it makes TOTAL COMMON SENSE to me that reading for pleasure can be important to the lives of individuals and to the health of communities. And, by the way, I still can’t get over the surprising correlation between pleasure reading and more exercise!
When kids have lots of experiences with texts they like and when they find pleasure in the act of reading, it stands to reason that as they grow up, they’ll be more likely to be an adult pleasure reader. This may increase the chance that they’ll be an awesome citizen and neighbor, healthy and active, and involved and connected with their community in a number of ways. Maybe that’s just me dreaming the dream. I acknowledge that I have no ‘science of reading’ data to back this up, but I know that reading for pleasure can’t hurt and certainly can help our children’s reading lives. As Sharon Murphy writes, ““When pleasure and reading are companions, we know very well that children become engaged readers and are likely to continue to read throughout their lives. (2012)”
So, children’s regular expressions of “BECAUSE I LIKE IT” in reference to texts and to the act of reading are not simply a bonus outcome or fringe benefit of our reading instruction. Instead, “BECAUSE I LIKE IT” must be a constant inspiration and steady companion to our instruction, standing tall alongside beside the Big Three of our instruction: Reading with Accuracy (decoding skills), Reading with Fluency (fluency skills) and Reading with Meaning (comprehension skills). Here’s to adding Reading With Pleasure and creating a Big Four.
Our world might very well be better for it.
(This is an excerpt of a chapter from Whole Readers (working title) Stenhouse Publishing, 2021.)
Some “Because I Like It” Book Resources:
Murphy, Sharon. (2012) “Reclaiming Pleasure in the Teaching of Reading.” Language Arts, v89 n5 p318-328 May 2012
National Endowment for the Arts. To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence. Washington, D.C.: National Endowment for the Arts, 2007. https://www.arts.gov/publications/read-or-not-read-question-national-consequence-0
Kathy Collins is coauthor with Matt Glover of the Heinemann title I Am Reading. Kathy is the beloved author of Growing Readers as well as Reading for Real. She presents at conferences and works in schools all over the world to support teachers in developing high-quality, effective literacy instruction in the elementary school grades. Kathy has worked closely with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University, and she was a first grade teacher in Brooklyn, New York.