Cultivating Literacy

12 Jun 2012

Michael J. Coren for Fast Company:

Stanley is doing more than providing paper; he’s creating the psychological motivation for students to dive into literature (or books of any kind) despite their surroundings. “Pushing banned/challenged books provides those kids with a shield to use against that pressure. Instead of reading a great work of literature, they’re breaking the rules and discovering what they (parents, adults, the establishment, etc.) don’t want them to know.”

How does one become a reader? How do you cultivate a love of literature? How do you train someone to enjoy the very act of turning pages and letting words flow over them?

It is a difficult task and, in our high stimulus culture, it grows ever more difficult. There are distractions aplenty even for those already captivated by the written word, so it is hardly surprising that many would rather aim themselves towards other undertakings than completing Moby Dick.

Reading is active. It requires attention, focus, and engagement with the medium. The written language is a metaphor that we must translate in order to understand, completely unlike the auditory nature of music or the visual nature of television. Realized in this manner, it is easier to recognize why reading can be considered a “hard” task; when compared to allowing a medium to wash over you, finishing a novel could be downright impossible.

Harry Potter succeeded because it told a story that children could imagine themselves in. This is likewise true of The Chronicles of Narnia, of Animorphs, or of The Hunger Games. You do not first become a reader, you begin by finding yourself in the shoes of Katniss or the Pevensie children. The love of the literary is a byproduct of this transformation. We must first be taught to imagine another world – to become jealous and envious of other lives; to wish, desperately, for characters and situations outside of ourselves – before we can ever become Readers.

Do not simply give youth banned books in an attempt to draw their attention, instead find out what captivates them and aim to find books that match with those interests. All cultivation requires work, it is an active process and needs to be tailored to meet the changing needs of whatever it is that you are trying to grow. If you want to to produce a reader, find out what they want to read and give it to them.

Will this transform every student into a literary fiend, desperate to absorb the classics? Of course not, but the goal should not be to make every student interested in reading, because, just as there is great variety in subject matter between readers, there is likewise great variety in interests and foci. The goal should be to ensure that all students who can be readers are.