Sunday, March 29, 2020
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Reading for fun, a student takes no prisoners

When it comes to reading for enjoyment, some kids get it and others don’t, writes an unnamed student in The Shield, the student newspaper at Mercy High School, a Catholic high school in Baltimore. Books have always been in this student’s life.

But, “not everybody shared my fascination with books,” the student writes. “Other students would moan about having to read a single chapter as an assignment, while it wouldn’t even faze me to go through two. They would scoff when I tell them the number of pages I was reading, seeming almost offended that I was reading a 700-page book willingly. They were dumbfounded that I knew certain words or how to spell properly while I was dumbfounded that they couldn’t tell the difference between to, too, and two.”

These dumbfounded students are perhaps a little less common at Mercy than at other schools, but they’re there all the same and occasionally make their presence known.

A survey of young American readers, however, published two years ago, showed a drop of nearly 10 percent over the previous four years of US children reading “for fun.” And the amount of reading for fun definitely goes down as kids get older.

The student highlights some perceived benefits of reading for fun—developing an imagination; diving deep into characters’ thoughts rather than glancing at them on the surface, as in a movie; and improving empathy skills by seeing different sides of a position—but the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, has also found a significant connection between reading for fun and educational outcomes in the readers.

That could explain why kids at Mercy are less dumbfounded by the writer’s reading habits than those at other, less academically challenging, schools.

So what should you do the next time you’re snowed in and the electricity’s out? Do you just sit and text aimlessly to anyone else suffering [from] technology’s grasp? Or do you just put your phone down, pull out a novel that’s been collecting dust on your shelf, curl up in a blanket, and delve into another world?

“The benefits of reading are more likely to be felt when reading takes place through free choice,” says Laura Venning, the impact and evaluation research manager at the Reading Agency in the UK. “The outcomes of reading will occur more often and more strongly if reading is enjoyable in the first [place]. This is why the ‘for pleasure’ element of reading for pleasure is so important.”

So when students write that they “would hungrily snoop around my sisters’ shelves like a buzzard over a highway and pick out the books they had already torn through,” that shows the “free choice” Ms Venning refers to. “I was a ruthless book reader, and I took no prisoners.”

When kids choose their own books, they tend to enjoy the reading. The summer book program several mayors have instituted works for adults or book clubs, and required summer reading lists are sometimes necessary in order to help students get ready for classes in the fall. But telling students what books they have to read can defeat the purpose of reading for enjoyment. And it’s the “for enjoyment” part that is the important part.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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