Kids don't have to love reading to read great books

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Holly Korbey

A couple of days ago, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed and saw a plea from filmmaker Scott Derrickson about reading in school. He wrote:

Dear middle school and high school lit teachers, your job isn’t actually to teach kids literature, but to help them fall in love with reading. Giving them classic, high art non-page turners only inoculates them against wanting to read in the future.

I’d like to think I understand where he’s coming from. Considering he’s the mind behind the movie “Doctor Strange,” maybe he was thinking about the kind of kid who wanted to be knee-deep in sci-fi, and hated being made to read Lord of the Flies. I also have one of those kids, but I’m starting to believe that what is best for that kid is the opposite of what Derrickson is proposing.

Derrickson’s comment echoes a national trend among schools and educators who believe the primary job of English language arts teachers is to help kids “fall in love with reading.” In my job as an education journalist, I hear all the time how hard teachers are working to encourage kids to love reading, which is great. But I’m not sure that should be the teacher’s primary job, and to illustrate I’ll share a story about my youngest son.

Out of my three boys, ages fifteen, nearly twelve, and eight, the older two enjoy reading, and the third one does not. Even as a baby he hated it. I remember struggling to put him on my lap and read to him. He cried every single time I got out a book. Instead, he always wanted to be moving. Most of all, he wanted to be outside.

He’s now in the third grade, and given the choice of all the activities in the world, he would probably still choose reading as one of the last. He loves building things, throwing baseballs, riding bikes, climbing trees, and making dinner. Our neighbors have a rope swing tied to a tree, and on that swing he can go higher than anyone in the neighborhood.

The one thing school has thankfully done for him is, well—force him to read. And I don’t mean “force” in a harsh way, because reading is what you do at school. He’s accepted that, and through practice at school, he’s become a perfectly good reader.

But he doesn’t love reading—at least not at this point in time. That’s fine with me, because reading is something he desperately needs, even if he doesn’t love it. He might love it later; the only reading material he’s interested in right now is looking at National Geographic, so I have hope. He may never love reading. That’s OK.

But reading the kind of complex texts that great literature provides will make him a much better reader. I’m concerned that “let kids read what they like” will in the future shut him out from the opportunity to read great literature—Shakespeare, Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, Chekhov, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Huckleberry Finn. For someone like my youngest, school may be the only place he encounters those (and many other) great works. 

This trend that kids need to love reading, not read great stuff, has caught fire in our local school system. As a result, there is no more Shakespeare or Hughes. In my high school son’s freshman honors English class, he didn’t read a single book or play in its entirety, and was only given short passages of modern, young adult books. Some of these passages were from perfectly good books about great topics, but they were certainly not great books. Certainly not Toni Morrison.

I’m a writer, so I’m all for kids loving to read. I think it’s a great goal, but at school please let’s not make it the only goal. Please don’t isolate kids like my son from the greatest books in the world because they may not like them.

Cognitive scientist Dan Willingham told me once in a slightly different context—I was talking to him about digital reading versus book reading—that reading is an issue of, “It’s watermelon or chocolate for dessert. I love watermelon and so do my kids, but chocolate is more tempting. I want my kids to enjoy chocolate, but I want them to eat watermelon because it’s a little more enriching, a different kind of enjoyment.”

My youngest son needs the watermelon. I like to think that one day he may love reading Julius Caesar or The Arabian Nights, but he won’t ever get the chance. To discover these great works, he will not only have to love reading, but will have to love it so much he’ll have to seek them outside of school. And I don’t think that’s ever going to happen.

Holly Korbey is an education journalist based in Nashville and currently writing a book on civics education called How to Raise a Citizen. You can follow her on Twitter at @hkorbey