Saturday, September 10, 2016

Dear High School Freshman

Book Smart: The Importance of Independent Reading
By Philip Hoy

Are you a reader? You can…obviously, but do you qualify as one of those people who, you know…like to read? Let me try asking another way. What are you reading right now? Okay…thank you, but besides this blog. I mean, what have you been reading for your enjoyment? You know, what is the name of the book in your backpack, or on your tablet or phone, or next to the couch in the living room, or on the floor of your bedroom?

If you answered with the title and author of a book, any book, then, yes, you are definitely a reader. 

Here is why I ask: 

If you are seriously thinking about going to college after you graduate from high school, then you need to start reading more. And I don’t just mean the reading your history or science teachers assigned, or even the novel your English teacher gave you…that’s homework (and if you’re not in the habit of completing your homework, then you’re not as serious as you think you are about college). Reading for homework is tremendously important, yes, but it’s just not enough. You need to read for your own enjoyment…and some of that reading needs to be literary fiction. 

Now, there’s just something contradictory sounding about that last statement, isn’t there? You need to read for your own enjoyment? Since when was “enjoyment” a requirement of anything you “needed” to do? And why, literary fiction? Say, what you sellin’ here, mister?Personally, as soon as I hear the words, “you need to…” I’ve already decided, “I don’t really want to,” and that’s before I’ve even heard what it is I’m supposed to need. 

But please, hear me out. If there’s one single thing you can do to better prepare yourself for the intellectual rigors of college…it is to start reading more…much more…than you probably are right now. I’ll tell you why.

As teachers, our job is not to simply give students our knowledge, but to guide students to acquire their own…to help them become independent learners. People who read independently—of their own free will and for their own enjoyment—are self-educators by nature. 

Readers are perpetual learners because they are constantly decoding text into meaning. Because of their engagement with the text—clarifying, questioning, summarizing, and predicting—readers are self-teachers. Because of their constant exposure to models of good writing, readers are better writers. Because of their ability to manipulate both the precision and ambiguity of language—to both explain and to create using words—writers make better thinkers. And because these creative and critical thinkers are also readers of literary fiction, readers have acquired the ability to walk in another’s shoes and to see the world through another’s eyes. This practiced empathy allows them to consider a subject from multiple and often differing points of view, and to know that there is never only one answer or only one way to do anything. Because of all this, readers make better communicators, better problem solvers, and better leaders.

But what if, you might ask, reading a novel for pleasure…is actually a painful experience? You’ve tried, but books just don’t interest you. What if you were just not born to be a reader?

Sometimes the difference between natural ability and a learned skill is not all that clear. Is someone good at something—like sports, or singing, or drawing, or in this case…reading—because they were just born that way, or because they worked hard to get that way? Yes, some people are simply better than other people at a particular thing; but often, what appears to be a natural ability is really the result of practice and dedication. 

And while some people may have simply been born with a natural appetite and aptitude for reading, just as many—maybe even more—struggled with reading at first and had to put in hours and hours of practice to eventually become good at it. 

Some readers grew up around books; others didn’t, but found ways to get them. Regardless of what motivated these people to start reading, they now have the academic advantage on their non-reading peers. What matters is that their love of books has made them better readers, with larger vocabularies…and because of that they have learned to be better at many other things as well, and not just intellectual things, but emotional too. 

What matters is that in the competitive world of college admissions, when it comes down to grade point averages and SAT scores…readers have the advantage.

So, if you are not a reader…there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is you are falling behind. The good news is it’s not too late. Start reading…and catch up.

Easier said than done, right? Well, as with any important change you want to make in your life, set realistic goals, and achieve them one at a time. First find a book that interests you and set a goal of reading, let’s say, at least ten pages a day for the first week, then raise that goal to fifteen pages a day for the second week, and so on until you are automatically reading at least twenty-five to thirty pages a day of independent reading. And remember, this is a book of your choice. This doesn’t count homework reading. If it’s a good book, you probably won’t have to count pages, and if it’s a really good book, you might not want to put it down at all…even when you know you should be doing your homework, or going to sleep already. 

If you’re not sure where to find a book you might like, ask your English teacher to recommend one…or any of your teachers. After all, English teachers are not the only people who read for enjoyment. Ask the school librarian. Ask me. Ask that boy in class who is always reading his own book, even when he should be doing something else. Ask that girl who—instead of texting or playing video games— always seems to be reading some kind of eBook on her phone. Ask her what she’s reading and why she finds it interesting. Or go online and Google it. Try a search for the “top ten books for teens,” or the “top ten books for teens who hate to read.” Try it.

And what am I reading right now? I just finished The Humans by Matt Haig.
Absolutely loved it.

This essay was originally published on (reposted with the author's permission, of course). 

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