While waiting for my car to be ﬁxed one rainy Saturday, I walked into a local bookstore. The car mechanic had told me my wait would be long and the bill high. I picked up a book and sat down to read, looking for a refuge from the pain.
Before long I looked up to ﬁnd a grandmother, trailed by a nanny with a baby, telling an intelligent looking six-year-old child, “Sit right here and read.” The girl sat down across the table from me and immediately plunged into reading her book. Every few minutes the nanny returned with more books, which the six-year-old, politely turned down. On the third try, the nanny’s face turned angry. “What’s wrong with these books?” the nanny asked, pushing a pile of books toward the child. The child pulled her body into an angry little ball and buried her face all the more defensively in her book.
Our society is nuts about reading because the educational establishment has convinced the public that success in life is dependent upon reading. But reading is something all humans can learn to do, just as they learn how to speak. When we begin to speak, we start out with something as accurate as “Mama.” The adult response is not, “No, that is not how you say my name. The correct word is ‘Mommy.’” We say, “Oh, she’s talking! She’s talking!”
A friend of mine who is the CEO of a Fortune 500 company told me that she thought that early reading was important for the future success of children. “These days, if you are not reading by the time you are in kindergarten, you are going to be behind, and the behinder you are the behinder you get,” she said. She was expressing a feeling that, in the thirty years that I have been a school principal, has grown into a powerful anxiety. But the anxiety is misplaced: Fear of falling behind in reading is a manifestation of the increasingly anxiety-ridden, meritocratic society we live in.
Letting this anxiety drive what we do in schools is destructive. Schools pass the anxiety to the parents, and the parents pass it back to the schools in a self-reinforcing spiral that interferes with rather than helps children’s ability to read. In fact, early skill mastery does not correlate with success of any sort. Children have different brains and learn at different rates; some very smart people are very slow to develop in certain areas. Pushing books on kids is, as my father used to say, “worse than useless.”
Language development is important. Parents should be talking to their children as much as possible as early as possible (right away, in fact, even though they can’t talk back). Use as many words as you can. Talking to your child as if she understands not only builds strong language pathways in the brain, but also develops self-conﬁdence—and self-conﬁdence should be our focus, not reading. If parents believe in their children, they can overcome most obstacles.
It is the same with reading to children. Reading to them every night before they go to bed is not only an important foundation for their learning to read—for some kids, it is all they need, and they go to school reading. But (duh) it is also fun. For as long as humans have been human, storytelling has been a foundation of education. Reading to children serves many of the same purposes. It is, of course, worth doing for the relationship alone. When you add to that the modeling, the vocabulary development, the insights, the pleasure, and all that can be learned through books, it is a wonder that parents aren’t doing it constantly. Read to your children every night, and it will be impossible for them not to learn to read.
To be sure, children need to be taught reading skills, but how reading is taught is critical. Parents should get children to tell their own stories, write and illustrate them, direct and act in plays of their own creation. That is, parents should tap into their children’s personal energy as much as possible. Lucy Calkins, author of The Art of Teaching Reading, and the Founding Director of The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project says, “Children need to be inducted into the tradition of reliving and rethinking moments of their lives. This isn’t a minor detail in a child’s education; it is essential.”
Some children pick up reading as if by osmosis by the age of three or four. Others ﬁnd reading a mystery well into third grade. Brains are different, and good teaching requires a variety of different approaches. For example, phonics is necessary for some kids and unnecessary for others. The system needs to be ﬂexible, so that we are always treating the child as if she is already a reader.
Children’s interests are not something to be thwarted, but cherished, worked with, and developed. Interest is nature’s way of guiding a mammal to those activities that will cause optimal brain development. In humans, interest is also the voice of character—what we ﬁnd interesting is one of the ways our genius speaks to us. Imposing books on children is not just a bad strategy; it is a violation of their souls.
Adapted from the forthcoming book, THE GENIUS IN CHILDREN, by Rick Ackerly.