Let My Children Read

If you read something once you haven’t really read it at all. You’ve introduced yourself to it, not altogether unlike the way you would introduce yourself to a  telephone solicitor and then courteously listen to his advertisement, which is highly unlikely to interest you.

The reason for this is not hard to find if you direct your attention to the workings of the reading mind. A mind at work is a mind asking questions. Some questions are natural to the reader and cannot be ignored, no matter how much the idealistic reader or teacher would like them to be ignored.

Since they can’t be ignored, I recommend answering them.

Other questions are natural to the act of reading and determine its quality.

Since you can’t read well without answering these questions, I recommend knowing and answering them.

Other questions arise from the particular text being read.

And still others arise from the circumstances in which the reader finds himself.

For this reason, I generally teach my students to read with an eye to answering questions they are asking anyway. Then I can teach them how to ask the sorts of questions that arise from the nature of reading and therefore enable a reader to become an excellent reader.

What are these questions?

To begin with, the questions that are natural to the reader:

How long is this going to take? Does the author offer any shortcuts? How long is each section?

Please note that these are not the questions of a trouble making student who doesn’t want to do his homework. I just finished lunch, over which I was reading from the novel The Red and the Black. I had about fifteen minutes to read, so I wanted to know how long it would take to read a chapter.

Some readers can be made to feel guilty for asking such questions. I was relieved to know that I could read a chapter of about five pages without straining at the bit, so I set about it, relaxed, more or less.

Other questions are natural to the act of reading. For example:

What sort of structure does this book use? How many unfamiliar words will I encounter?

If it’s a narrative, who are the primary actors? Where does it take place? When?

If it’s an argument, what is the primary concern and what sort of argument does he use? Does he include narrative?

These are questions that can be answered without reading the book closely. I teach my students to and I scan and skim the book, highlighters in hand if I want to read closely.

But even if I just want to do a quick pleasure read, I’ll still flip through the pages looking for the main outlines of the writer’s thinking or the actors and settings.

The only exception is for a dramatic reading. In that case, since I want to respect the author’s right to build suspense I’ll only scan one chapter at a time. But since the plot is the least informative part of a story, I don’t worry about it too much.

Another question that arises from the nature of reading is:

Does the author say anything memorably? Are there any profound insights or axioms? Anything I’d like remember and ponder and add to my commonplace book?

If so, I highlight them.

Then I go at the text for its own sake based on the nature of the text I’m reading. For example, if I’m reading a story, I, like everybody else, keep turning the pages because I want to know what I think of the actors, what decisions they are going to have to make, and how those decisions will affect them. So that’s where I focus my attention.

Not on words and motifs and tricks of the writing trade. All of those are important. That’s why I don’t discuss them yet. They’re important because they help the reader understand the actors decision and what the author is suggesting about that decision. But that’s a deeper read about which the typical reader has no interest the first time he reads a book.

And the reader who is driven by questions about those more technical questions is precisely the reader who is trying to take control of the story away from the story teller. For example, a writing student might read a story to see what kinds of metaphors a writer used. Fine. But as long as you are focused on that, the story will pass you by.

After you have read the story for its own sake (asking about the actor and his decisions) and it has done its magic on you, then you can come back and ask those questions with true comprehension.

But I’d still wait. I’d ask other questions first. Should he have done that? What were the effects of his decision? What led him to make the decision? Were the reasons good enough? How does the protagonist compare with other actors in the story or in other stories?

In other words, let the story build itself up. Stay focused on the story at hand. As you ask these questions, the answers will gradually move you out from the story to other stories. Then, comparing with other stories, you’ll start to notice themes and issues that run across books. Then you’ll start to notice more and more, naturally, the tools and tricks authors use to get you to notice things.

And you won’t give anything up in the process; not pleasure reading and not technical learning.

But that’s precisely why if you’ve only read something once, you haven’t really read it. You’ve only answered a very few of the questions your mind wants answered. Do that enough and eventually reading will become nothing but a chore or a productive task.

Please notice that all of these questions are perfectly natural and universal. Even a child being read to is asking these questions, though I acknowledge that the more you divide into various genres and the more specific the questions become the less young children ask them.

But if a child goes through a text like I’ve just described, which takes a very, very short time and pushes so-called comprehension through the roof, they will be able to attack any text with more confidence and pleasure.

But if you have them read to cull information off the surface or infer answers to unimportant questions so they can do well on a standardized reading comprehension test, beware. You are not teaching them how to comprehend. You have redefined comprehension. You have dehumanized the act of reading. You have, by your means of assessment, altered the act of reading to something nobody enjoys very much. You have encouraged habits of illiteracy.

Let them read. Let them ask questions that arise from the nature of reading. Most of them will love it.

7 Responses

  1. Jennifer,
    It sounds like you are doing a great job with your children. My only thought is that 20 pages a day out of a Foster book is an awful lot. Since the books are nicely divided into sections, I usually assign 2 sections a day which is about 5 pages and even then I think the ideal….if we had forever….would be just one section a day. The ideas in the Foster books are huge and do take some digesting. But I could be wrong. I also struggle with whether to let my children read at their own pace or slow them down. I work out this struggle by vacillating between the two 🙂 So maybe you are fine to let them read 20 pages.

    • Cindy,
      You could be right, my daughter (9) was moaning about the 20 pages thing, although her complaint was that she didn’t like how the book jumps around from story line to story line, she finds it annoying. I’m assigning so much mainly because these are not new concepts or stories, we’ve been reading lots of other resources which tell these same stories. So my idea was to have them read through the Foster book for another angle on the stories. I didn’t want to spend a whole semester in the book since I have other things I want them to read, hence the speed. I am also having them read Christine MIller’s Story of the Renaissance and Reformation, and i am only giving them a section or two at a time of that book. Andrew, thank you for that clairification, sometimes i forget about the difference between studying history and reading literature, I get all caught up in the living books ideal and forget that there are still some different skill sets and goals, although many areas do overlap. And I love your idea about having them come up with questions. That’s the classical model. Sometimes i loose perspective. I am too comfortable in the grammar stage, need to start stretching into the next one…

  2. Homeschooling, we go throuh alot of books that we will only read once. Is it a bad idea to require them to draw certain information out of a book and spit it back out in a narration form? As an example, I am having our 9 and 11 year olds read The World of Columbus and Sons by Foster. I assign them about 20 pages a day. It’s information that we have covered before in the last several months. They both enjoy the reading and can tell me one or two interesting things that they pick up. Lately, I’ve been going through the reading ahead of time and writing out questions for them. I require them to read through the questions and look for the answers as they read. Usually, they can answer 60-70% of the questions when I ask them later in the day (verbal responses, not written). Should I just let them read the book and enjoy it without forcing them to “work” at it to find the information that I deem important?
    Thanks! I”ve been enjoying your blog posts. I found my way here via Leigh Bortin’s blog =)

    • I’m sure what you are doing is fine. You are introducing them to a period in history. I was writing more about how to approach literature. I would recommend teaching them to come up with their own questions, but if you wait a couple years for that nobody will suffer.

      You are obviously a diligent homeschooling mom! That’s more important than anything else.

      Thanks for stopping by and posting, and thanks to Leigh for referring you!

  3. “As you ask these questions, the answers will gradually move you out from the story to other stories. Then, comparing with other stories, you’ll start to notice themes and issues that run across books. Then you’ll start to notice more and more, naturally, the tools and tricks authors use to get you to notice things.”

    I love the above paragraph. It covers both comprehension and techniques!

    I do have a question, though. What about the younger children, the ones being read to? Are we just cultivating the seeds of reading? Are they just learning to appreciate the poetry of language, the skill of story telling? (I shouldn’t say “just”!) I guess the dialogue would be with the person reading aloud, the mentoring of one to other, asking questions, leading them through the topics of invention perhaps. Then when it’s time for them to read silently, you could discuss those questions. (Unlike before, when I wasn’t sure how much “reading” my beginner was doing!)

    At what point or age could a child start highlighting? When he starts reading silently on his own? Wouldn’t he be ready for it if his teacher was discussing with him and modeling it all along?

  4. Agreed, but let them read for enjoyment first. I was a teacher and part of our training with a literacy program was to absolutely cut children’s books down to the very basic sentence structure and go over it again and again. My biggest fear was that it would destroy the joy of reading and the desire to reread in case some thing was missed or to gain new meaning.

    • Ashley,

      I kind of agree with you, but a caution may be in order. People don’t enjoy doing things they aren’t good at. So if you let them read for enjoyment “first” you run the risk of undercutting their ability to enjoy reading.

      To my mind the solution comes from a clear understanding of a couple distinctions, which I go into in my blog on the three stages of reading. You can read it here: https://quidditycirce.wordpress.com/2008/03/06/that-shriveled-grind-on-teaching-reading/.

      Children need formal training in sentence structures. But they should not be told that such training is reading. It’s closer to decoding.

      Of course, the devil is in the details. Any time a brilliant idea is packaged it loses its brilliance. The only people who can teach reading effectively are the ones who understand and feel reading in their bones.

      But both formal instruction and practicing reading need to take place for them to gain the joy of reading, which is not, it seems, something natural to us as human beings. It seems to be a learned pleasure and not one that every child should be morally bound to develop, though every teacher should certainly be morally bound not to hinder it.

      As an aside, can you read anything without missing something?

      Thanks Ashley,


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