I Haven’t Opened a Book Since I Graduated from High School

November 30, 2009

Yesterday, I wrote about building personal vocabulary and forgot to emphasize that plain old reading for fun and pleasure is an excellent way to learn new words. I know, though, that for struggling readers—and many folks who are attending colleges and universities and trade schools are struggling readers—it may seem ludicrous for me to suggest that anyone who doesn’t read very well might want to read for fun. Ditto for the folks who just plain don’t like to read. (Notice how I slipped ludicrous in there? I especially like using it here since its root—ludis, for play or sport—is also the source of the word ludic, as in ludic reading, or reading for fun. Yes, I am an uberwordgeek!)

Reading equals misery for many people, bringing back memories of being assigned to reading groups in elementary school where everybody knew what being in the Crows or the Robins or the Pigeons really meant, and of dreading being called on to read out loud in in middle and high school. I’ve talked to many adult students whose biggest hurdle in returning to school is facing the reality that they will have to read and read a lot for their classes. I’ve heard numerous versions of this comment from one of my advisees who told me, “Zinn, I haven’t opened a book since I graduated from high school.“ I’ve also heard plenty of confessions from students who really never read any book during high school, but instead finely-honed their skills of pretend reading. It’s almost impossible to fake your way through your reading in higher education, but even if you could, it would be a bad idea. Much better is to begin to develop the skills you avoided because you struggled with them in your K-12 education.

Before I became a teacher, worked with adult literacy. Dr. Frank Laubach, founder of Literacy Volunteers of America, was a family friend as I was growing up, and hearing him talk about his work as a missionary who focused on adult literacy as a way to fight poverty and empower people was inspiring to me. He took the name of his mission to liberate people through literacy from a phrase that has its origins in slavery in the United States, Each One, Teach One, a reference to the duty of a slave who learned to read despite being denied education to teach another. I learned a lot from Dr. Laubach about working with adult readers–and non-readers.

Most struggling readers who are participating in higher education have mastered some essential skills of reading. They understand how to hear and identify individual sounds in spoken words. This is known as “phonemic awareness.“ Most of them also know how to use phonics skills to connect the sounds of spoken language to the letters of written language. This is what happens in school when students sound out words. Students who don’t have these skills are likely to need tutoring to help them get up to speed. Since becoming a teacher, I’ve worked with several adults who lacked even these basic skills and although it took work and personal determination, they were able to develop them quickly. If you know that you are struggling with reading skills, I definitely recommend seeking assistance at your school. There is a big difference between learning to read and reading to learn, and you need to master the first before you move on to reading to learn, something many college students are challenged by.

Much of the reading aloud in school is done to help students improve their fluency, or the ability to read quickly and accurately. Teachers also do it to check on whether or not students have the basic reading skills related to phonics and to sight words (the words a person knows how to read because s/he‘s seen them so many times, they’re familiar). The problem is that reading quickly and pronouncing the words correctly does not necessarily mean that the student understands what s/he is reading. Unfortunately, many written standardized tests also require speedy responses. I have known a number of extremely bright and gifted people who read slowly and deliberately and thus do poorly on measures that also test their speed of comprehension.

My friend Pam is a member of Mensa, a group whose only qualification for membership is a high IQ. She reads slowly and remembers just about every word, but has always been frustrated by expectations that she read quickly. Pam also has an outstanding vocabulary, and this is another essential literacy skill, one that must be deliberately developed in order to be a successful reader. There’s not much point in being able to sound out a word if it’s meaningless. In addition, students must be able to do more than simply read the words on the page and know what the individual words mean. They need to be able to understand the words in the context of the reading. This seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it? But think about this: How many times have you finished a page in a textbook and can’t remember a single thing you’ve read? Or you can remember some of it, but don’t know what it meant. This has happened to me many times. I’ve finished reading something and realized that the words have gone in one eye and out the other! I read once that Albert Einstein’s mother said she could read and understand all the individual words in what he wrote, but still couldn’t understand his theories. Comprehension requires deliberate attention and sometimes a lack of distractions too. There are lots of students who claim that that they can multitask and study a textbook while texting, for example, but often comprehension suffers. Be honest with yourself about this.

Reading for fun includes lots of things, not just books: websites, magazines, technical manuals (you would be surprised how many self-identified non-readers have no problem reading, understanding, and using the manuals that come with new technology), recipes, and craft project instructions, for instance. But be sure that you’re doing some aspirational reading too—reading that’s a bit above your reading level and that challenges you to develop your skills. A good way to find this kind of material is to determine a topic you want to know more about and find related reading. One of my students who was a dancer had a reading breakthrough when she discovered a fascinating yet difficult-to-read biography of Isadora Duncan, a dancer who died tragically when a scarf she was wearing became entangled in a wheel of her moving automobile and she was flung from the car and strangled.

Write a brief reading history for yourself. How do you feel about reading? What kinds of printed materials do you like—or dislike—reading? What kinds of reading do you understand easily and what kinds do you struggle with? What can you do to improve your reading skills? Note: Even your professors have to work on their reading skills. My challenge is reading and understanding things that are not in my areas of expertise. It takes me much longer and I must read much more carefully, going back over things to make sure that I understand before I move on.

I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened to me. I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.
• Malcolm X


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