To live in a world of readers creates a hunger to belong, and that hunger motivates learning.
I read for pleasure, to learn things I want to know, to hear news from faraway places, and to keep my mind occupied when I travel. My wife reads for similar reasons, and some more of her own, I’m sure. We often read together to share pride in our children’s work—we read what they have written, and we see their words as remarkable gifts.
Children read for many reasons. In his autobiography, the prolific writer Isaac Asimov talked about learning to read in order to navigate his New York City neighborhood using street signs. I can remember the day Katie, my oldest daughter, told her sister Leah that learning to read is fabulous because when you read, “you see whole new worlds.” Emily Dickinson had a similarly grand sense of the reader’s motive: “There is no frigate like a book,” she wrote, “To take us lands away.” She understood that words on the page held power wildly beyond proportion to what they seemed to be. She ended her famous poem about books this way: “How frugal is the chariot/ That bears a human soul!” Frugal indeed, using no more than ink and sound to bring us messages about our own deepest nature, our greatest yearnings, and the accumulated knowledge of millennia.
We all have heard the truism about learning a foreign language— that you have to live in a country in order to learn its language deeply, and so much the better if you fall in love with someone who speaks it (passion for learning has many shades of meaning). The same is true of learning to read. To live in a world of readers creates a hunger to belong, and that hunger motivates learning. To see the power of books work on others is to want that power oneself. And alas, to have no motive for learning to read other than to stay out of trouble, to simply follow the rules of letters and sounds without a view into the worlds that books represent, is a shame.
That shame may belong to us, to educators who run toward the money promised to “scientifically proven” methods of reading instruction offered under the new Reading First federal funding program. In many ways, this is a fine program, and there is no doubt that we need more ways and more funding to reach students who are not learning to read well enough. But until fairly recently, a calm had come over the language arts waters, following the storm of debate over whole language and phonics. “Balanced literacy” had been the emerging standard, and it was a good one. Yes, we need to teach students how to sound out letters. Yes, we need to help them learn to read one word at a time. But always with an eye toward exciting and enhancing their motives for learning to read. Balanced-literacy programs generally offer both approaches—the basic skills of reading, and a sense of the power of real, meaningful literature.
Balanced-literacy programs generally offer both the basic skills of reading, and a sense of the power of real, meaningful literature. The new Reading First money will tilt this balance if we are not careful.
The new Reading First money will tilt this balance if we are not careful. Two major problems will arrive along with the baskets of money provided by Reading First. The first of these is an unfortunate sense of what science is, and how the study of education works. The second is an unfortunate sense of how teachers and students should be expected to relate to each other to support the best learning.
Science is a process of discovery, a way of looking at the world that brings us increasingly accurate and useful understanding of the world we live in. The fundamental principle of science is experiment. Science tells us that we must test the things we believe, and cultivate the ambition to see beyond the range of our vision today. As any creationist would tell you, little in science is proven; rather, science propounds theories and observations, some far more conclusive than others, but none representing final knowledge. The scientists who offered proof of Earth’s fixed spot at the center of the universe, who “proved” spontaneous generation of life from rotting meat, and who diagnosed the cause of hysteria in the “floating wombs” of afflicted women were the guardians of “scientifically proven” orthodoxy in their day. The better scientists continued to experiment, to wonder, and to challenge those orthodoxies, doing what science does best.
So what do we teach our children— and our teachers—about the nature of science by funding only “scientifically proven” reading methods? First, we teach them a wrongheaded view of science as an engine of static truth and proof. Second, we teach them that science is about authority: Someone (in this case, someone in Washington) will tell you what is proven and true. Your job is not to reason why, but to execute.
We must remind teachers that they are not only teaching how to read, but why to read.
It is no accident that the programs best suited to the Reading First initiative are those that de-emphasize the subject work of creating meaning in favor of greater emphasis on the discipline-and-obedience model of learning to decode language. Teachers in too many of these programs do not share questions with students, and do not join their students in common learning. Instead, they tell their students what is right and what is wrong, and push those simple lessons as hard as they can.
There are better approaches. First and foremost, we must remind teachers that they are not only teaching how to read, but why to read. They must find ways to share wonder along with linguistic correctness, or else we will raise a generation of students who can read, but will too often choose not to.
Peter Temes is the president of the Great Books Foundation in Chicago and the author of Against School Reform (and in Praise of Great Teaching), forthcoming in August of this year from Ivan R. Dee.
A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 2002 edition of Education Week as Why Do We Read?