Why read?

Bob Graef -
Bob Graef
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Aside from a few high-achieving schools, WASL reading scores in Snohomish County need to improve. The percent of Marysvilles seventh graders that met or exceeded WASL standards were Marysville Middle School 49.5 percent, Cedarcrest 56.0 percent, and Tenth Street School 67.3 percent. Almost half of Marysvilles seventh graders reading comprehension and speed fall below a truly reasonable standard.
One argument holds that kids dont need to read as well as their parents. Print-media is old stuff. Everything they need to know comes via the tube or computer. Since all one has to do is watch and listen, why all the fuss about reading?
The anti-reading argument holds true if were willing to let whole sections of childrens brains shut down. Reading for information calls on students to question, search, sort, synthesize and be able to judge the validity of whatever theyre reading. Our world needs critical young readers who can sniff out bad information and faulty logic while growing the sort of minds that will inspire their own children some day.
If we are to govern ourselves effectively, if we are to be an informed body of voters, we need to be able to distinguish truth from lies and information from propaganda. If ever there was a time when this skill was critical to our nations well-being, it is now. That obliges schools to exercise childrens brains by reading and discussing important non-fiction writings.
Non-fiction writers invite ordinary folk to soar off on adventures of the mind and taste the excitement of breaking free of ordinary thinking. It takes a stretch to grasp whats happening on the frontiers of progress but stretching is good brain-exercise. Non-fiction writers boost young minds onto the shoulders of giants from where they can see farther. Sharing the thrill of seeing farther and more clearly by piggy-backing on great minds should be enough reason for getting children to read. Last-minute shoppers might think about that.
A good fiction book might exercise the brain even more than non-fiction. Lets say you once enjoyed reading a good story that was made into a movie. Your reaction to the movie was generally positive, but deep inside, you know that wrong actors were cast for the lead roles. You know, because you have them pictured in your mind. Your minds eye met them and walked the scenes.
When teaching reading, I enjoyed taking my students on quick mental field trips. First, they were required to shut their eyes, turning their minds into dark-rooms where images might form. After a field trip they compared images. A typical field trip was no more than one briefly described scene. Try this one:
Hair at the back of Tobys neck bristled. Anna crouched near the still-warm stove, her ears straining to follow the faint squeak of footfalls compressing dry snow outside the small cabin. She brushed hair from her ear to better probe the silence. Moments passed before a heavy impact jolted the door.
More instructions are given. Keep your eyes shut. Assume you just read what you just heard. In your mind, you are at the scene as a witness to what is happening, both inside and outside the cabin. Picture it. Bring the scene to life.
After allowing a few moments for images to develop, a quiz begins with more instructions. Everyone take out a sheet of paper. Answer only those questions where your mind imagined answers.
1. Where in the cabin is the stove?
2. Describe the stove.
3. What is Anna wearing?
4. Describe the door.
5. What color is Annas hair?
6. Who is Toby?
7. What struck the door?
8. What time of day is it?
The idea is that a good author doesnt insult his readers by telling them everything like TV does. The author powerfully suggests a scene and leaves it to readers to fill in the blanks. The reader becomes a full creative partner with the author in producing a mental movie. Taken this way, fiction-reading becomes a creative activity of the highest order in which every reader produces their own version. Everyones mental movie is unique in the Theater of the Mind,
Books and shorter writings are my time machines. They transport me into the real past and into possible futures. They equip me with factual understandings of how our world got into its present situation and deliver carefully-reasoned approaches on what might be done about it.
Books are my travel guides. They take me places where I will never set foot. And should I happen to visit one of those places, insightful travel writers will direct my attention to important things I might otherwise miss. As a traveler, I wouldnt think of visiting a foreign place without reading deeply about it first. The same goes for foreign ideas, foreign religions and anything else that lies outside my experience.
The skills needed to score well on the reading portion of the WASL test are more important than meeting some arbitrary benchmark. This is about enriching young lives, raising up responsible voters and cultivating young brains so they can live up to their amazing potential. In a world where discerning truth is almost as important as breathing, students must do more than learn to read, they must become critical lifelong readers.
Here is what must be done. Parents simply must motivate children to read by reading to them and demonstrating that reading fills an important part of parents days. Teachers will hone reading skills and challenge students minds with worthwhile literature. The WASL sets a standard that all but handicapped students should meet because launching young people into the world without sound reading skills is like sending them into battle without weapons.

Comments may be addressed to rgraef@verizon.net.

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