Several years ago, I interviewed for a job. A couple of people on the interview panel asked me about a state-wide reading initiative that I had been involved in in the early 2000’s. Typical of these interviews, they wanted to know how that work did or did not support the job for which I was interviewing.
Atypical of these interviews, instead of asking me the question, they asked one another, and discussed their own (very similar) opinions among themselves. They agreed that the initiative that I had been involved in was about “just reading,” and furthermore, that “just reading” had little to do with anything that mattered much to them.
It was truly a moment to remember.
I listened quietly to all of this, completely taken aback by the whole exchange. I decided to listen and try to learn something. Because frankly, I didn’t know what they were talking about.
Just reading? Seriously?
What is that?
(I didn’t take the job.)
Reflections on Just Reading.
In the years since that exchange, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the “just” part.
Maybe they meant decoding words? I just don’t get it.
Because decoding words isn’t reading. It’s decoding. I can decode entire pages of Spanish because I know the phonics rules for that language. I’m kind of slow at it, but I can do it. Given my current lack of proficiency with the language, though, I can’t read much in Spanish—I can’t make sense of it.
Reading is making sense.
And making sense of experience is pretty much what human beings do their entire lives. As Frank Smith (one of my just-reading heroes) points out, the only difference between reading body language, reading a room, reading the sky, reading a road map or reading a book is simply what you are looking at and trying to make sense of. Regardless of what you are reading, you use what you already know to make sense.
Making sense requires thinking.
It requires using a whole lot of nonvisual information from your stores of knowledge, garnered through your own lived experiences with people, things and similar situations. And woven throughout every experience are feelings and emotions, as well as social and cultural norms learned from the communities in which we live our lives.
Truth be told, human beings begin trying to read their worlds—that is, to make sense of their experiences—to learn—from the time they are born.
Becoming literate is an ever-growing, life-long process of transacting with the texts of our lives. In terms of “just reading,” part of that journey is learning to make sense of squiggles on pages put there by authors who (hopefully) had something to say about something that matters.
Thought about that way, learning to read isn’t like successfully climbing a mountain (named after a Lexile Level) before the end of third grade. It is a lifelong endeavor.
Because when you get to the top of whatever mountain you are climbing, guess what? You see that there are mountains upon mountains upon mountains beyond the one you are standing on.
That’s the nature of learning. It’s the nature of reading. It’s the nature of life.
If you’ve ever climbed a mountain, you know how easy it is to lose sight of the mountain because of the trees. Don’t do that.
Perhaps that’s the “just” part?
No, there’s more. Quite a lot more, in fact.
Just reading is a social justice issue.
“I suppose it was inevitable that as my word-base broadened, I could for the first time pick up a book and read and now begin to understand what the book was saying. Anyone who has read a great deal can imagine the new world that opened. Let me tell you something: from then until I left that prison, in every free moment I had, if I was not reading in the library, I was reading on my bunk. You couldn’t have gotten me out of books with a wedge. Between Mr. Muhammad’s teachings, my correspondence, my visitors… and my reading of books, months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life.”
– Malcolm X, Learning to Read
There is a reason why it was illegal to teach slaves to read.
There is a reason why legislators who wanted to restrict voting rights under Jim Crow linked voting to tests of literacy.
There is a reason why planning for prison beds is linked to how well kids read at the end of second or third grade.
One’s ability to make sense of print opens (and closes) opportunities and decisions as kids move through school and life. Think about it. Readers are afforded choices and opportunities that kids who don’t read well don’t have.
Who gets into AP courses? Who graduates from high school? Who gets into college? Who gets to go to professional school? Readers. That’s who.
Don’t want to go to college? OK. But without the ability to just read, you won’t necessarily have the same opportunities and choices that your buddies who read and write well will have as they move through their lives. For example, you could apprentice to a plumber or a mason or a builder and learn an extremely valuable skill. But if you read and write well, you are more likely to develop the business skills necessary to eventually own your own company if you want to. If you don’t read or write well, that choice probably won’t become available to you.
As an educator who has devoted a career to figuring out how to help kids who struggle to make sense of print, I am passionate about “just reading.” Just reading opens up a world to readers that simply doesn’t exist for those who cannot (or who can and choose not to) read. It allows us to be independent, critical thinkers and consumers. It allows us to participate more fully in our democracy, society, and culture. Just reading creates a world of possibilities and choices.
As an educator, I believe that just reading is a moral, ethical, socio-cultural imperative. Not only do we not have the right to close those doors to children, we need ensure that those doors are flung wide open, that we beckon every other one of us to step through those doors and to join the Literacy Club that Frank Smith describes.
And if you are anything like me, and also love to read literature, trash novels, newspapers, blogs, magazines—just about anything—just reading is a great way to expand your world, to visit places you have never been, experience feelings you might never have had, and to understand experiences you have had that are like those of characters or people you read about.
So, just read.
Help kids connect with books that speak to them. Read books together. Talk about what you are reading.
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