Recently, I was working with a precocious elementary student whose parents (and teachers) were having an impossibly difficult time getting him to read and to answer reading comprehension questions accurately. So after I tried—and failed— to elicit any positive response to his assigned reading for homework, I asked him why he had such a hard time reading and responding to such relatively simple passages. Without even pausing to think about my question, he shot back: “I hate reading.” A bit surprised, I asked: “Why do you hate reading?” Again, he responded swiftly and angrily: “Because it’s stupid.” Now being an academic coach, my first instinct was to explain to him why he was wrong and to encourage him to give the passage another try. But as I thought about his answer—“Because it’s stupid”—I realized that he was right. Reading was stupid—at least the readings that he was being assigned by his teachers. This brilliant young mind was being besieged and bored to death by inane stories with equally inane titles such as “Anna’s first barbecue” and “Rudy’s Rock Collection,” which had been quickly (or click-ly) gleaned from the latest internet reading comprehension worksheet program. These stories had no souls. There was nothing great or exciting about them. They existed simply for “teaching reading comprehension” as if the only purpose for reading was answering a series of multiple choice questions. Read this; answer that. Next! Rinse and repeat. These stories were as interesting—and as painful—as exploratory gum surgery. He had been read to death.
This, unfortunately, is the insidious outcome of decades of “reading comprehension for test preparation.” Schools have suffocated the natural instinct and desire that kids have for reading. Kids are curious: they’re born that way. Reading—and enjoying what they read—is a natural expression of their congenital curiosity. Only schools—filled with well meaning but test-pressured teachers—and homes—filled with frustrated, compliant parents—could turn reading from a delicious treat into dry, tasteless meat.
What are we to do? How can we help our kids to rediscover their joy for reading? It’s not that complicated: find out what they are curious about and then provide substantive, age-appropriate texts for them to explore and learn about what is already stimulating their minds. Then, do what we should have been doing all along: introduce them to the great stories. These are the exciting, richly written tales that teach morals and principles. They have existed for centuries and can be found in compendiums such as “The Book of Virtues.” There’s a reason why millions of parents have read and told these stories for over hundreds of generations: They are great, exciting, and enriching stories that are repositories for many of the values that we want our children to possess and pass on to their posterity. Beyond the riches that lie embedded in their exciting characters and plots, these stories also offer students substantive textual complexity that engages and expands their minds. Our kids become better—and smarter—while reading and retelling them. That’s right: retelling them. Storytelling is one of the best ways to get kids passionate about stories, and when we ask them to retell the story that we have read to them or that they have read to themselves, we are doing much more than simply fulfilling a testing standard. We are asking them to become storytellers, which is truly the world’s oldest art form. Storytelling excites and expands their imaginations. So parents should read stories to their children and ask their children to tell them a story about the stories that they have just heard or read. This request doesn’t have to come in contemporary test prep format: “Please write an extended response including details from each paragraph.” Ugh!!!! Just let them get excited once again. Let them discover heroes and heroines. Let them learn why responsibility is better than excuses. Let them learn why courage is better than cowardice. Let them enter faraway lands with exotic names and meet unforgettable characters who manage to create and solve some of life’s greatest problems. Let them read for enjoyment, and let them talk to you about what they have just read.
But all of this advice is too simple in our day of complex methodologies. After all, there is no real criteria to “ascertain” the effectiveness of joyful reading on reading comprehension. And, in our age of test-centric teaching, what cannot be quantified must be disqualified. But perhaps a non-compliant parent or teacher somewhere might decide to buck this nonsensical trend and let kids experience the joy and passion of great stories once again, for reading is so much more than trying to get a “4” on the ELA Common Core.
I'm a former principal, classroom, and homeschool teacher and currently the president of ScholarSkills Learning Center. As an educator with nearly 35 years of experience, I have a burning passion to teach children how to read fluently and with understanding.