Monday, November 14, 2011

The Itch to Read, Part 3: Advice for the Non-Reader

One of the greatest challenges a reader can face is understanding why some people don't read.

After all, aren't there so many good reasons to read? In all the classes I teach, I ask my students who are readers to tell me what they get out of the activity. Almost invariably they mention that reading offers them an escape from real-life stress; this is the first answer I get. Other excellent responses follow: reading improves vocabulary; reading broadens their perspectives on the world and encourages them to relate to situations and people they would never encounter in real life; reading helps them understand problems. From my students' mouths I hear all the reasons why I love to read.

Yet if reading offers understanding, adventure, and escape, why do people reject it? Since I often have as many non-readers as readers in my classes, it's my business to find an answer to that question. I've asked my friends and fellow teachers for help, and this is the best we can come up with:

Many young people grow up in bookless houses. They never see their parents reading. Excursions to the library are not part of their routine; bedtime stories are unknown. The only place where they encounter books is school. Most of us associate school, at least the part that takes place in the classroom, with work rather than fun. Those who read only at school tend to associate reading with work, something to be abandoned when leisure time presents itself. No matter how good the books they read in school may be, reading is still work in their minds.

The key to helping a non-reader become a reader is breaking this association, and connecting reading with fun.

This new connection isn't likely to happen if non-readers leap straight to Moby Dick or War and Peace -- unless they're especially interested in marine life or Russian history. Non-readers should begin reading to their interests, those things they already enjoy. Are they interested, for example, in sports? Then instead of getting all their sports news from watching CNN Sports Center, they should try reading Sports Illustrated, a good magazine with articles that go into depth and detail about their subjects. Over time -- this doesn't happen quickly -- as non-readers read about things they enjoy, they start to feel more comfortable with the printed word; they may move on from SI to books by or about sports heroes. They may never read Moby Dick, but at least they start to see what reading has to offer them: deeper understanding and exploration, and even the chance to step into the shoes of people they admire.

Then, when they have families of their own, their children will grow up seeing their parents with their noses in books and magazines.

And so the race of readers marches forward into new generations, even as prophets of doom continue to bray that print culture is dead.

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