Welcome August....and some thoughts on why reading matters
But, we still have August. It is a strange month. Too hot in some places, too cold in others, blazing sunshine or pouring rain...the weather does what the weather does. Regardless, it is the perfect time for reading. So many sources have been handing out summer reads suggestions, so I thought I'd jump on that band wagon as well. But, I also want to write a bit about why summer reading is so important for everyone, but especially for children and young people.
When we consider the importance of reading, we all too frequently think of it in terms of educational purposes. We need to be able to read to get along well in school and to retrieve information; in short, to learn. This is putting the cart before the horse. Many schools send their students home for the summer holidays with lists of books they should read over the summer, and this is great. But it also fosters this association of reading and the learning environment. Especially as the number of years spent attending school increases, the link between books and school increases and it begins to erode the concept of reading as a pleasurable activity...and as a personal one. And it is neglecting a very significant factor. It is far more important to create a habit of reading for pleasure. Those other factors will engage afterward, and so much more comes from reading for pleasure that make significant impact on the whole life and its' quality. To understand this, we need to think about how reading works.
Did you know that there is no such thing as a natural reader? None of us are born with a greater ability to read than others. This came as news to me, too. And then, a number of years ago, I found myself watching a TV show called "Why Reading Matters". While I could (and many have) sit and pick apart the content of this show, a few things really stuck out that gave me pause for thought. One such item was the explanation of what the human brain does when it is confronted with the printed word. Science has spent decades attempting to find the 'reading centre' in the brain. This makes sense because, if we can find the 'reading centre' in the brain, we can find out what goes wrong and then help people with dyslexia and other reading challenges. In short, we can fix it. But, as it turns out, there isn't a 'reading centre' in the brain. What happens to facilitate reading instead is quite extraordinary. As we learn to read, the brain creates its' own pattern of areas and pathways. If you map this this (and science has done so) what you discover is an intricate system of these areas and pathways all linked together in a pattern that is as individual to each of us as a fingerprint. Interrupt just one of these, and you have a problem reading. So how do we 'fix' it? Read more. To get people with reading difficulties to read more, they have to read for pleasure; things they want to read, things they like. I don't think its' any great epiphany to understand that, as human beings, we prefer pleasure to struggle or boredom and that we all like different things. While it is important to keep in mind ability and challenges when giving a book to a child (or anyone) that can't/won't read, it is equally, if not more important to consider what they will like...what they want to read. So personal autonomy and choice also becomes a significant factor. Very simply, if it is a book they choose, they are more likely to read it and to associate reading with their own accomplishment, pleasure and satisfaction.... and then they will want to read more.
Now, back to how reading works. (Pay attention...I about to start going on about picture books now.) The first exposure to books and reading that we have is through picture books. More on all the wonders of picture books another time, but what we need to get a hold on here is that this is the most significant moment in a childs' life in terms of reading. The illustrations in a picture book are what fires the brain into action in terms of reading ability. All too often, I have people ask for a book for their young child that will 'challenge them' more than a picture book and help them to 'read properly'. Picture books are all too often seen as books for babies; unsophisticated and too simple. Nothing is further from the truth. It is our ability to read pictures that allows us to read at all. We are, as human beings, visual to the extreme. Everyday, all the time, we see things. These things become pictures in our minds and we interpret them in quite a sophisticated way. Colours, images, objects, facial expressions, body language all combine together to give us a visual interpretation that we then assign meaning to...this means this and that means that. We read the visual; its' how we learn to be in the world. It's how we learn to read
Think of it this way. When we read, we are reading words. What are words? The written expression of the noise that comes out of our mouths. But printed words in and of themselves have no meaning apart from what meaning we assign to them. They are, in essence, random symbols. Printed words are made up of letters; the alphabet; more random symbols....or, if you will, pictures. Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, someone somewhere decided that these random marks we call the alphabet stood for something. And when you put them together, that stood for something else. In the Middle Ages, a vast portion of the population had no ability to read the written word (and generally, the written word was much more scarce than it is today, so they didn't have it.) But, they could read iconography...paintings, sculptures, images...and that told them their story, who they were, how they were to be. With the advent of the printing press and the printed word becoming far more commonplace, these random symbols (pictures) of letters and words took on more and more meaning and more and more people could read through time until the present day....but, at its' heart, we are still always reading pictures. And, if you take the time to look at picture books, you find an intricate and sophisticated network of iconography that fires the brain on to understand more and to assist us in interpreting these odd little printed symbols that we call words. I would strongly recommend holding on to a vast array of picture books, regardless of how old your children are or whether you even have children or not....it will enrich your life.
I wouldn't want you to think for one second that I want you to force children to read. That won't help at all. What I strongly suggest is that you provide them with the materials and opportunity. Don't leave it to the schools... our children take their strongest cues from us, at home, in the 'real' world. And, most importantly, read to your children. Every day. It not only increases their ability to read and learn. It allows them to associate reading with pleasure, comfort, and security. Reading for pleasure during the summer holidays allows them to develop confidence and autonomy. It gives them a view of others lives, the world in general, places they may not see, things they may not experience. And it supports and reinforces their own world, and themselves. It makes them feel less alone and isolated...and it helps them to think and grow. Don't stop reading to them simply because they can read by themselves. Read to them, or with them as long as you can...keep reading to them when they are teenagers. (Yes, you may have to grab them as they fly past, but do it.) Not only do they need you to relate to them in this non-threatening and secure way, but you need to read what they are reading to remember and understand what their world is like now. It's important to take the time.
That's a lot to consider, and I hope you will.