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Let My Children Read

If you read something once you haven’t really read it at all. You’ve introduced yourself to it, not altogether unlike the way you would introduce yourself to a telephone solicitor and then courteously listen to his advertisement, which is highly unlikely to interest you.

The reason for this is not hard to find if you direct your attention to the workings of the reading mind. A mind at work is a mind asking questions. Some questions are natural to the reader and cannot be ignored, no matter how much the idealistic reader or teacher would like them to be ignored.

Since they can’t be ignored, I recommend answering them.

Other questions are natural to the act of reading and determine its quality.

Since you can’t read well without answering these questions, I recommend knowing and answering them.

Other questions arise from the particular text being read.

And still others arise from the circumstances in which the reader finds himself.

For this reason, I generally teach my students to read with an eye to answering questions they are asking anyway. Then I can teach them how to ask the sorts of questions that arise from the nature of reading and therefore enable a reader to become an excellent reader.

What are these questions?

To begin with, the questions that are natural to the reader:

How long is this going to take? Does the author offer any shortcuts? How long is each section?

Please note that these are not the questions of a trouble making student who doesn’t want to do his homework. I just finished lunch, over which I was reading from the novel The Red and the Black. I had about fifteen minutes to read, so I wanted to know how long it would take to read a chapter.

Some readers can be made to feel guilty for asking such questions. I was relieved to know that I could read a chapter of about five pages without straining at the bit, so I set about it, relaxed, more or less.

Other questions are natural to the act of reading. For example:

What sort of structure does this book use? How many unfamiliar words will I encounter?

If it’s a narrative, who are the primary actors? Where does it take place? When?

If it’s an argument, what is the primary concern and what sort of argument does he use? Does he include narrative?

These are questions that can be answered without reading the book closely. I teach my students to and I scan and skim the book, highlighters in hand if I want to read closely.

But even if I just want to do a quick pleasure read, I’ll still flip through the pages looking for the main outlines of the writer’s thinking or the actors and settings.

The only exception is for a dramatic reading. In that case, since I want to respect the author’s right to build suspense I’ll only scan one chapter at a time. But since the plot is the least informative part of a story, I don’t worry about it too much.

Another question that arises from the nature of reading is:

Does the author say anything memorably? Are there any profound insights or axioms? Anything I’d like remember and ponder and add to my commonplace book?

If so, I highlight them.

Then I go at the text for its own sake based on the nature of the text I’m reading. For example, if I’m reading a story, I, like everybody else, keep turning the pages because I want to know what I think of the actors, what decisions they are going to have to make, and how those decisions will affect them. So that’s where I focus my attention.

Not on words and motifs and tricks of the writing trade. All of those are important. That’s why I don’t discuss them yet. They’re important because they help the reader understand the actors decision and what the author is suggesting about that decision. But that’s a deeper read about which the typical reader has no interest the first time he reads a book.

And the reader who is driven by questions about those more technical questions is precisely the reader who is trying to take control of the story away from the story teller. For example, a writing student might read a story to see what kinds of metaphors a writer used. Fine. But as long as you are focused on that, the story will pass you by.

After you have read the story for its own sake (asking about the actor and his decisions) and it has done its magic on you, then you can come back and ask those questions with true comprehension.

But I’d still wait. I’d ask other questions first. Should he have done that? What were the effects of his decision? What led him to make the decision? Were the reasons good enough? How does the protagonist compare with other actors in the story or in other stories?

In other words, let the story build itself up. Stay focused on the story at hand. As you ask these questions, the answers will gradually move you out from the story to other stories. Then, comparing with other stories, you’ll start to notice themes and issues that run across books. Then you’ll start to notice more and more, naturally, the tools and tricks authors use to get you to notice things.

And you won’t give anything up in the process; not pleasure reading and not technical learning.

But that’s precisely why if you’ve only read something once, you haven’t really read it. You’ve only answered a very few of the questions your mind wants answered. Do that enough and eventually reading will become nothing but a chore or a productive task.

Please notice that all of these questions are perfectly natural and universal. Even a child being read to is asking these questions, though I acknowledge that the more you divide into various genres and the more specific the questions become the less young children ask them.

But if a child goes through a text like I’ve just described, which takes a very, very short time and pushes so-called comprehension through the roof, they will be able to attack any text with more confidence and pleasure.

But if you have them read to cull information off the surface or infer answers to unimportant questions so they can do well on a standardized reading comprehension test, beware. You are not teaching them how to comprehend. You have redefined comprehension. You have dehumanized the act of reading. You have, by your means of assessment, altered the act of reading to something nobody enjoys very much. You have encouraged habits of illiteracy.

Let them read. Let them ask questions that arise from the nature of reading. Most of them will love it.

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