Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

“The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.”

 ~ Mark Twain

I have watched my young cousin go from drawing nonsensical scribbles to laboring over writing each letter of a word to reading long books. She is in fifth grade now, and a few months ago, she told me that books are her best friends. I got a bit teary because in that moment she sounded so much like me when I was her age. My love of reading is the one thing (besides my parents) to which I owe my every success. Reading taught me to love learning, and it taught me to think on a deeper level. It encouraged the growth of my imagination, and it made me into a good writer. Every child needs to have a love of reading because it is instrumental to developing into an adult with strong analytical skills and innovative ideas. At a time when people escape their real lives by living through their social media accounts, we need to go back to an older and much more fulfilling form of escapism: reading.  The best way of developing good reading habits is to reach out to children when they first begin school so that when they are adults, reading will be an everyday enjoyable activity.

Photo courtesy of Talkandroid.com
Photo courtesy of Talkandroid.com

Fifteen years ago, my family and I emigrated from Baku, Azerbaijan to live in Brooklyn. Both of my parents are well educated and always encouraged my brother and me to do well in school. I came to the U.S. just in time to start first grade. There was a group of fifth graders who would come to my class to help us with our reading. I remember one boy in particular writing out the alphabet for me in my notebook and helping me learn how to read. My mother says that the summer after first grade, I was already devouring books. A couple of years later, I was sitting with my mother and brother on a bench reading yet another book. The same boy who helped me learn how to read passed by in a car, waved to us, and exclaimed, “She’s reading!” It was a great moment because it showed how far I had come.

During the summer breaks, my parents couldn’t afford to take us on vacations to the Caribbean or Europe, so I spent long, hazy days in Brooklyn reading anything and everything. I visited my local library every week to take out books on all kinds of subjects. My mother complained that I read too much and would ruin my eyesight. But I loved to read, and nothing could stop me from diving into the next book and the next adventure. I couldn’t go on vacation to exotic places, but by reading, I could travel to any place in the world and to any time period. I read about everything from teen romances to da Vinci. I read entries in encyclopedias for fun. I read nutrition labels, instruction manuals, and coffee table books. I was horrified when my friends said that they didn’t like to read and would rather watch TV or play video games. For me, a book was a learning experience, an escape from quiet Brooklyn summers, and opportunity in its purest form.

At a time when everyone has something to say about the educational system in this country, we need more people who help grow a love of reading in every child. The results of a standardized test tell us little about a child’s potential. Knowing how to answer multiple-choice questions and writing essays in a prescribed format will not mean that a child will be successful in the future.

There should be a greater focus on exposing children to as many forms of literature as possible at a young age. How do we do this? Schools need to modernize their libraries, give children the opportunity to use e-readers, and host author talks. For those students who are struggling to read, schools can create programs where older students can come into the classroom and help them.  Also, incentives should be created in order to encourage more reading. When I was in elementary school, we would get a button for every 10 books we read. In addition, children can be given a reading list at the beginning of the year with books that are appropriate for their age. Writing assignments can be given based on the books so that the child can learn how to analyze text, which is a skill that will be invaluable later on in life. Parents should be responsible for making sure children read every night and complete assignments.

Over the summer, it is even more critical that children read because it is so easy to lose good reading habits over those long and lazy months. Students can be required to read a certain number of books over the summer. The school can provide a suggested reading list, but the students should be free to read anything they want. Then, when September comes, they should be ready to do some kind of assignment on what they’ve read: an oral presentation, an essay, or an art project.

As children get older, they seem to become less interested in learning and more interested in what their friends think is cool. Therefore, when students are in middle school and high school, it is even more important that they keep reading as a regular part of their lives. There are two ways of encouraging older students to read. One way is to arrange fun classroom activities related to a reading assignment. Every time that I’ve read Shakespeare for a class, we’ve done some kind of fun activity at school. Students can pick a scene and act it out, rewrite certain portions using “modern” language, or write their own plays.

A second way is to give pop quizzes. Students dislike pop quizzes immensely, but the reason that they hate them is the reason why they work. Pop quizzes keep students on their toes. My AP English teacher began to give pop quizzes because he felt that students were getting away with skipping reading assignments due to the fact that he hardly ever assigned formal written homework. The students who took AP English the year before us were not given pop quizzes on a regular basis and did terribly on the AP Exam. The majority of my class did well on the exam, and he is convinced that it is because we lived in fear of those pop quizzes and therefore did the reading. Whatever the method that teachers use to encourage reading, there is no doubt that the high school students who find joy in reading and do it on a regular basis will be the ones who succeed in college.

In college, a student’s reading comprehension is critical to his or her success. From the first week, students are given reading assignments on a regular basis. Many times there is no written homework to do with the reading. There will often just be a discussion during the next class session. This makes students think that they don’t have to read. So instead, they skip reading assignments or read them with half their minds on social media and the other half on the reading in front of them. They avoid participating in the class discussion and think they get away with not reading. Then midterms come, and they scramble to go back and do the readings. The cycle repeats.

In order to combat this problem, some professors give written homework to accompany the reading. In some cases, it works, but some students still just don’t do the reading. In one of my classes, we had written homework to do with the reading, but student participation was still low. I remember this one particular class session, in which the participation was especially feeble, when my professor openly asked who actually did the reading. Only two out of twenty students raised their hands. He didn’t give us a pop quiz, and he didn’t even say anything. After all, he saw us only twice a week, and he was getting paid whether we read or didn’t. Professors see students as adults and expect them to be responsible enough to do the reading without being told. After all, in the end, who is losing out? Students are the ones losing their time and money when they don’t try their best. Professors can pepper students with reading assignments and essays, but at the end of the day, the desire to read and the desire to learn must come from the student himself.

There is a startling statistic out there that says 42% percent of college students will never read another book after they graduate. Unless they attend graduate school, most students will begin their careers right after graduation. Of course, it’s becoming more and more difficult to find a job immediately after graduation, but that’s a topic for another article. Once students leave the college environment and enter the workplace, it’s easy to leave reading out of their lives unless they already have a passion for it. After all, there are no professors warning them to read their textbooks and no threat of a failing grade. It is up to the person to make reading an essential part of his or her life. There’s no need to read any super-long books (unless the person wants to). Newspapers, magazines, and blog posts are all great to read as well. As adults, people have more freedom than ever to figure out how to shape their lives. If reading has been a part of their lives since they were children, they are more likely to include it as an everyday activity in their adult lives.

The ability to read is a gift, and one that should not be taken lightly. There are 774 million people worldwide who can’t read, and that is unacceptable. We need to instill a love of reading and learning in all children if we want to change this statistic. There are currently millions of people who will never know the joys of Tolstoy, Austen, or Shakespeare, and that is a tragedy.

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