By Maureen Gardner
Middle School English Teacher
November 2, 2018
As a teacher of English, I know that reading matters. However, a string of professional development opportunities lately has helped me look at reading’s importance with fresh eyes. Consistent reading isn’t just desirable for our students; it is necessary for success.
Over the summer, I attended the Reading and Writing Project’s Summer Reading Institute at Columbia University in New York. The research about reading that we encountered that week was plentiful and powerful. The bottom line: kids need to read, and they need to read often. What’s more, they need to have choice in what they read. They need to have access to high-interest, high-quality texts on a regular basis. And, they need the chance to write and talk about these books. Researcher and educator Nancie Atwell notes in her book The Reading Zone: How to Help Kids Become Skilled, Passionate, Habitual, Critical Readers, “Every measure that looks at pleasure reading and its effects on student performance on standardized tests of reading ability—and science and math—tells us that the major predictor of academic success is the amount of time that a student spends reading. In fact, the top 5 percent of U.S. students read up to 144 times more than the kids in the bottom 5 percent” (107). It’s hard to not to be swayed!
This past month, at the NWAIS educator’s conference, I attended a session by Dr. John Medina, a brain scientist and author at the University of Washington. Dr. Medina spoke about Theory of Mind, or the ability a person has “to peer inside someone’s else’s interior” and know their motivations, intentions, worries, fears, etc. This trait is helpful in the classroom, as teachers assess what each student needs -- but it is a powerful tool for our students, too, as they navigate relationships and interact with other people, styles, and viewpoints. So, what was the best way to improve one’s Theory of Mind? You guessed it. Reading. People can increase their capacity for Theory of Mind over the course of a month by reading award-winning fiction and then writing or discussing the characters’ internal motivations and feelings. Or, as I like to say now, in English class we teach you how to read minds.
The reading that students do in and outside the classroom paves the way for success in all areas of their lives going forward. Through books, students build strong thinking habits and essential background knowledge that helps them thrive academically. Through books, students interact with characters that help them see themselves more clearly and definitively. And, perhaps most importantly to me, reading and writing about books helps students understand others on the inside -- moving beyond surface assessments to the complicated individual landscapes underneath. That is powerful stuff indeed; we can all benefit from reconnecting with our reading lives. So, let’s all be sure to set time aside this weekend for a good book. 😊
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