Why Does Reading Matter?


There is an old story of a boy, a man, and a beach littered with dying starfish. The boy is walking up and down the beach picking up starfish one at a time and heaving them back into the sea. The man watches for some time before finally addressing the boy, “You do realize, son, that your task is futile. There are far too many dying starfish for you to make a difference.”  The boy walked a moment in thought before picking up another starfish. He looked at it carefully before throwing it to its home in the sea. Turning to the man he said, “It made a difference to that one.”

Teaching language arts is like throwing dying starfish into the sea. Teachers cannot make all children love to read and to learn, but each teacher can make a difference in the life of one child at a time. And that is enough reward.  Following the journey a student makes from reading by demand and reading by choice offers satisfaction in a way nothing else really can. Good teachers do not teach because they are ill-equipped to do anything else; good teachers teach because they see the potential in others and they have a passion for helping students recognize and achieve that potential.

            The key to successfully motivating students to read is to remember that the subject we teach is secondary. “You’ve got to accept the fact that you are not basically teaching a subject,” writes Madeleine L’Engle, “you are teaching children. Subjects can probably be taught better by machines than by you. But if we teach our children only by machines, what will we get? Little machines. They need you, you as persons.”[i]

            Literature is not objective. It never has been. Literature is the story of humanity, and every human on the planet has a point of view. Authors write from a particular bias and history and experience; readers read with their own biases, histories, and experiences. Nothing, especially nothing literary, happens in a vacuum. To separate literature from its historical and emotional context denies the essence of the medium. Literature, true literature, contains some message about the human condition that an author is compelled to provide. If books were written without any purpose, world view, social paradigm, or history it may as well be written my non-senescent animals or machines.

As I pondered this idea of reading motivations, I came up with a list of 19 items. I know there are more, but these hit the highlights:

  • To escape reality
  • To discover new things
  • To learn about known things
  • To justify beliefs
  • To challenge beliefs
  • To improve vocabulary
  • To follow a character
  • To enjoy a story from beginning to end
  • To indulge in fantasy
  • To gain power
  • To understand others
  • To persuade
  • To argue
  • To discern ethics and/or morality
  • To identify
  • To define identity
  • To discover truth
  • To break monotony/routine
  • To respond to the “wild unpredictability of the universe” (96)[ii] (L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet, 1972)

Each of these have a place in motivating students, but I think the most important ones have to do with identity. The early models of education, from the Enlightenment through Post-Modernism, have a variety of differences in the purpose of reading, but one element is constant: man’s connection to the world as it is revealed in literature. Historically, literature has never been produced or shared without the context of what has gone before or hoped for yet to come. Common Core seems to revert to reading and writing as a purely practical science that can be measured by objective tests.. The notion that 70% of literature must be non-fiction seems to corroborate that. Fiction is relegated to the 30% of “wasted” time in Language Arts that isn’t already consumed with grammar, vocabulary in a vacuum, test preparation, and the five point essay with MLA citations. Of course non-fiction matters, but it is in fiction that we discovery our humanity, our identity, and even the motives behind our history. Madeleine L’Engle wrote,

“People have always told stories as they searched for truth. As our ancient ancestors sat around the campfire in front of their caves, they told stories of their day in order to try to understand what their day had meant, what the truth of the mammoth hunt was, or the roar of the cave lion, or the falling in love of two people. Bards and troubadours throughout the centuries have sung stories in order to give meaning to the events of human life. We read novels, go to the movies, watch television, in order to find out more about the human endeavor.” (L’Engle, 1993)[iii]

      It is humanity that makes literature meaningful. Close reading of any literary text must include linking to the human condition. And this is where context matters. It is one thing to understand  and accept the biases of both author and reader; it is quite another to understand that every work of art has its historical and emotional context.  Understanding why characters respond the way they do is often linked to the historical setting of the author. Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 during the Cold War, when television was just becoming popular, and when life began to speed up after the war years. The concept of burning books came right out of Hitler’s Germany,

When I was fifteen, he burnt the books in the streets of Berlin . Then along the way I learned about the libraries in Alexandria burning five thousand years ago. That grieved my soul. Since I’m self-educated, that means my educators—the libraries—are in danger. And if it could happen in Alexandria, if it could happen in Berlin, maybe it could happen somewhere up ahead, and my heroes would be killed. (Reed, 2006)[iv]

While what has been is important, what will be is equally so. We must continue to read the classics and study history in order to preserve our heritage. Bradbury’s fear was that television would replace books in the hearts of Americans, and in many ways, he was correct. So many people have stopped reading voluntarily, demands by school for reading are met with resistance.  The connection to our past and future selves as a culture is found in the literature we read and the context from which it comes. Since Common Core practices remove that historicity, students, no matter what constructivist models they employ, are unlikely to understand it wholly. Without that understanding, the message is quickly forgotten. When the message is lost and history becomes nothing more than dates on a timeline, no one remembers. And those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it (George Santayana, Reason in Common Sense, 1905).  However, part of learning the past is in discovering identity—and it is that identity that carries a society forward.

A society is made up of individuals, and teachers are in a particularly influential position as we work to help young individuals find their unique identities.  Context is king because it provides a reference point for the reader. Readers bring different experiences and biases to the literature. Authors write with different experiences and biases. Context allows the author and reader to begin the literary journey on the same page, so to speak. The “New Criticism” and its connection to Common Core removes that mutual understanding. By eliminating context and guidance, readers can easily get lost, frustrated, and turned off. It is utterly impossible to engage students with this kind of “cold reading”,  unless the “cold reading” is an enticement or the only context the book needs to the reader’s own point of view.

My 20 year old daughter hates reading. She is all about science and certainty and facts. So when she told me she was reading a book and I HAD to read it, I was intrigued. What kind of book would motivate her to read it–and then inspire her to buy the second book of the trilogy?  Her eyes glaze over when I turn on my English teacher mode (like mine do when someone starts speaking math), so I decided to read the book cold and see whether I could figure out its appeal based on what I know about Corinne. The very first observation I made (and I really tried to turn off the teacher brain, but this assignment was on my mind and I just couldn’t) was that my own personal experiences and points of view colored how I interpreted the characters. This is going to be true of every reader. Rather that pretend that readers come to literature as blank slates, we need to validate the minds of our students as they read a text–even cold.

The second thing I observed was that the book’s primary theme was one of finding self-identity. Ontology, the theory of BEING, is the primary focus of teens and many young adults, whether they realize it or not.  We know we have existence, but what kind of existence and what does it mean? In the search for “self”, books can provide a sort laboratory where we can experiment with different personalities without committing to one in particular. We can live vicariously through the characters because we admire their strength, will, courage, perseverance, or even the excitement of their lives in comparison to our own. Eventually, if we read enough, we find a comfortable rhythm in connecting with particular kinds of characters, and at some level, we connect to our own sense of being.

Having determined that much, I started to consider how to transfer the concepts of personal world view and search for identity to canonical works. How am I like Beowulf? Last I checked, no one called me to kill off any monsters…oh wait a minute…there was this time that a bunch of people were criticizing my child and I went all Mama Bear on them….  It takes a few minutes, but eventually, most students can come up with a time when they either did something really cool for someone else or someone else bailed them out of a bad situation. Grendel comes in many forms. Move to Shakespeare. Shakespeare dealt with all kinds of real people in his plays. Othello, for example, discusses motives of jealously and manipulation that any teen who has ever had a bad break up will identify with. Thoreau and Whitman got so sick of society that they checked out. The creative part for teachers is to find that little nugget of human connection and polish it until the gold shines brightly.

Jenkins talked about how teaching with the New Literacies has to change:

 “…they should focus greater attention on what it means to be an author, what it means to be a reader, how the two processes are bound up together, and how authors exist in dialogue with both those who come before and those who follow them. In this context, young people learn how to read in order to know how to create; the works they consume are resources for their own expressive lives. They seek to internalize meanings in order to transform, repurpose, and recirculate them, often in surprising new contexts….literacy is no longer read as a set of personal skills; rather, the new media Literacies are a set of social skills and cultural competencies….” (location 1163)[v]

This has always been my philosophy. Both authors and readers bring a personal world view or bias to the literature, depending on world events, personal circumstances, and perception of self. The purpose in teaching literature in the classroom is to show students that literature is a living entity that changes with every re-read because we, as readers, change. The exciting thing about teaching in a digital age is the accessibility students have to new media and the expertise they quickly develop even as that new media evolves. The living entity of literature takes on new forms as students begin to blend their experiences with new forms of transmission and combine classic universal themes with current cultural conflicts. This requires a deeper kind of close reading, and one that is more specialized, but no less effectual.  Wyn Kelly wrote,

I expect that each of us representing four perspectives on reading— the creative producer, performer, media scholar, and literary scholar —might consider his or her approach the default position for all readers. After all, each of us was a “general” reader before becoming “specialized,” and each would also reject an exclusive position that isolated others. (location 1555)[vi]

            If we as teachers allow students to take their natural “roles”, there will be a multitude of experts to contribute to a class discussion. Creators and producers will interpret the text differently from the scholars, but both points of view are equally valid and each brings a perspective to the discussion that the other needs to hear. Common Core negates one way of reading in such a way that it labels it “bad” and then wonders why kids don’t read. To dwell on “unpacking” the literature rather than dwelling in it does our students, and ultimately our society, a grave disservice.  Kelly adds,

Similarly, closer reading of a text allows us to experience and learn more in a dynamic relationship between what the author has put on the page and what we actually take in. The text begins to have meaning for us in more varied and subtle ways, and we begin to feel that we know it better. So we judge and have opinions. Just as we begin to argue with the person we know better than before, we begin to argue with a text or with the assumptions people have had about a text. One can measure that kind of knowledge best, perhaps, through writing assignments that allow students to develop critical opinions, explore the complexity of their responses, and communicate their differences with other readers. (location 1600)[vii]

            Jenkins reassures the teacher that adherence to the original text is the first critical step in remixing. It must be understood and valued for what the author intended first, but then open to interpretation, extrapolation, re-mixing, “modding”, and other creating uses that give the literature contemporary relevance. These are the words that should accompany reading: experience, learn, dynamic, meaning, and identification. Factual knowledge is such a small part of knowing a book! Use the personal experiences and world views of the students to guide discussions rather than focus on expected (and testable) outcomes. This is where I think it’s okay to just tell the students outright what the “experts” say and what the “right” answer is—and then allow students to define the literature for themselves with evidence and logic and critical thinking. Then they know what to say on the standardized test, but they also make the literature their own.

            The current system of teaching one interpretation because that’s the one the test writers say is right leads to ” a series of lifeless exercises in which the students extrapolated the meaning of symbols, metaphors, and themes irrespective of the situated cultural understanding they may have brought to bear on the reading of the text. “[viii] Not only that. but it turns readers into non-readers because reading is boring, too much work, no fun, and pointless. No longer it is an escape from reality; it becomes drudgery. It is not about personal discovery because what is discovered is probably “wrong.” Reading is not a pleasure when it becomes a chore devoid of any satisfaction. How can we respond to L’Engle’s “wild unpredictability of the universe” when both wildness and predictability are removed from the equation?

Teachers must be creative—to both engage the students AND meet whatever standards and tests that are in place. I like the idea from a previous chapter about using “specializing” to make reading more approachable.  Encourage closer reading by allowing students to use a particular angle to anchor their interpretation. Give them a reason to scour the text for examples, proofs, or illustrations of something that interests them. Then they can bring that to the class and be the “expert”.

“Modding” adds another element to close reading. If a student is going to diverge from the “state approved” path. he must be able to support his creative decisions with evidence from the original text. The human connection is the key element to successful remixing. In order to understand the universal themes of literature, teachers must be guides who promote questions, point to history, and provide context.  CCSS proponents want to remove authority from literature by putting the uninformed student in charge of his own learning–and he had better come up with the right answer on his own. But Madeleine L’Engle would disagree.

 “To refuse to respond is in itself a response. Those of us who write are responsible for the effect of our books. Those who teach, who suggest books to either children or adults, are responsible for their choices. Like it or not, we either add to the darkness of indifference and out-and-out evil which surround us or we light a candle to see by.” [ix]

Modding is one way to offer students a way to discover that human connection. Creating new texts requires understanding original intentions and connections. Close reading then becomes connected to meaning and meaning to relevance. It’s precisely what happened when Ricardo Pitts Wiley chose to remake Moby Dick as a play with a contemporary spin.[x] The very first thing Wiley did was ask his actors to write a story about one of the characters, that human connection that cannot be determined by a standardized test.

When the goal is to mod (make meaning with) the text in full consideration of what students know, motivations that guide their meaning making, and the ways they engage with the text when meaning making, a new range of possible meanings and conceptualizations of readers is made possible. As an expert modder, the teacher’s role becomes one of guiding students to closely attend to the text to make meaning in relationship to a range of interpretive communities and reader identities.[xi]

 I’ve apparently been “modding” my entire teaching career because I have always looked beyond the “do you know the expected answer” model to the “so what” question. So Hamlet may or may not have been insane. So What? So Gulliver decided horses were cooler than people, so what? So, Sartre thinks hell is being locked up with people you hate forever. So what?  The “So What” question is the key to human connectivity, and it is in developing at connection that modding can be most effective. Altered art, rap videos, re-writing Shakespeare in 21st century “teenspeak”, and even photography assignments are all types of pre-modding experiments I have worked out in the classroom for 20+ years. No wonder my principal once wrote on an evaluation, “her teaching methods are unorthodox, but effective.”  Whatever works. For me, the students come first. I want them to see themselves in literature. I want them to recognize that, although times may change, people really do not. I want them to read closely, think deeply, find identity, and live passionately long after they have left my classroom.

The thing teachers have to remember, I think, is not that we must motivate our students to read, but that we must share our passion in such a way that students motivate themselves. When that happens, we have made a permanent difference in that child, and saved one starfish on the beach.

[i] (L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet, 1972, p. 156)

[ii] (L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet, 1972, p. 96)

[iii] L’Engle, Madeleine., The Rock that is Higher, Story as Truth. Crosswicks Books. 1993.  p 88

 [vi] (Jenkins, Jerry; Kelley, Wyn, 2013)

[vii] (Jenkins, Jerry; Kelley, Wyn, 2013)

[viii] (Connors, Sean P.; Rish, Ryan M, 2014)

[ix] (L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet, 1972, p. 99)

[x] (Jenkins, Jerry; Kelley, Wyn, 2013, p. 1196Kindle)

[xi] (Connors, Sean P.; Rish, Ryan M, 2014, p. 15)

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