Habits in High School: Reading Books (2)

“Our great failure seems to me to be caused by the fact that we do not form the habit of reading books that are worth while in children while they are at school and are under twelve years of age.” (School Education, Vol. 3, Preface)

“The boy who has not formed the habit of getting nourishment out of his books in school-days does not, afterwards, see the good of reading…and he goes through life an imperfect person, with the best and most delightful of his powers latent or maimed.” (On the Formation of Character Vol. 5, p. 291)

Eeep! Is it too late?

I don’t think so, and this is because I have known non-readers in school who become readers as adults. I have been encouraged to believe that no habit worth having is impossible to acquire, so will press on. How will I help my kids (re)acquire the habit? I have some ideas.

Atmosphere, again. Turning off the screens. A house full of books. Making time to read myself and to discuss what I’m reading with the family. We always stop at a bookstore when we make family trips, and just this summer all four of us found books we liked there.

Choose the best books for lessons. Nothing turns off a reader more than a poorly written book. Miss Charlotte acknowledges this is no easy task. “It is as teachers know a matter of extreme difficulty to find the exactly right book…” (Vol. 6 p. 176)

Pay attention to level. Just because they’re teens doesn’t mean they don’t struggle with reading. While Mason was certain that kids can comprehend better than we think they can, and should not be fed twaddle just because it’s easy for them to digest, she was aware that kids needed books at their level. In the public schools, they have a five-finger rule – if you can count more than five unknown words on a page, it’s probably too difficult. If none, it’s probably too easy. As a rule of thumb, this is imperfect, but it’s a start.

I think I have a better idea. I read a study that discovered, among other things, that teens tended to choose books above their level in subjects that interested them. So if a teen had an interest in cars, for example, he or she would make the effort to understand a reference book written for mechanics. In the same study, the researchers found that kids who were often frustrated with reading simply gave up. So my idea is to choose books just at, or maybe even a little below, my kids’ levels for subjects that are not of interest, and books slightly above for those subjects that are of interest. So, one teen who loves history will enjoy putting in the effort to understand Churchill’s Birth of Britain, the other may need to read Arnold-Forster’s history of England – equally well written, but with less advanced vocabulary and less reliance on prior knowledge.

Choose fewer, but better books. Mason did not overload her students with huge page counts. She would rather have her students read the same book over and over than have them read widely, but with poor understanding and retention. Less is more.

Involve teens in the Great Conversation. Discuss the events of the day, your own ideas, your kids’ questions. Encourage your kids to have questions, to wonder aloud. Then help them find the answers in their books. I firmly believe that intelligence is evidenced by the questions you ask, not the number you have answers for.

Do not allow the teen to identify themselves as a non-reader. The teen years are a huge time for developing self-identity. Teens are trying to figure themselves out as human being separate from their families and friends, and in the process will try to behave consistently with the traits they identify as their own. If a teen tends to dislike dogs, for example, they will not allow themselves to consider any given dog to be cute. Exceptions, they fear, undermine this self-understanding they are developing. “I am this, not this.” It takes time to develop nuance in the black and white world of adolescence. If a teen self-identifies as a non-reader, they will turn away from books. You will need to talk to your teen about books as tools for the formation of character and identity, not as an optional taste you either have or do not have.

“It is not important that many books should be read; but it is important that only good books should be read; and read with such ease and pleasant leisure, that they become to the hearers so much mental property for life.” (Vol. 5, p. 223)

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