Reading for (Fun and) Profit

The other day, one of my more, shall we say, challenging students proclaimed that he hates reading, and doesn’t read, and doesn’t want to read, and… you get the picture. This wasn’t a huge revelation to me; he throws this out into the world semi-regularly, just so we all remember.

Possibly, also, just to see what kind of reaction he’ll get. How better to get the attention of a teacher of literacy and lover of books than by proclaiming your hatred of the thing she’s putting in front of you, day in and day out. Not that adolescents ever do things just to get a reaction.

In any case, he’s what we call a “reluctant reader,” a tidy educational euphemism for “kid who hates reading, never reads unless forced to, and stands a high chance of rarely cracking a book after high school.” How to reach these students is a big deal in education these days… as it has been for decades.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that we’re looking at this from the wrong angle. A student who can’t/won’t/doesn’t read is likely a student who doesn’t see the act of reading as profitable.

No, I haven’t lost my shit, and I’m not channeling some bizarre Ayn Rand of Literacy. Everything we read doesn’t need to be (and probably shouldn’t be) immediately and tangibly employed in the service of our own self-interest.

However, let’s take a moment to look at our own reading habits as literate adults. Do we read simply because someone says to? Do we  map out what strategy we’re going to use to comprehend a news article. Do we fill out story maps as we enjoy a steamy romance novel over a glass of wine on Friday night?

Not usually, not usually, and holy cow, I hope not… and yet we expect students to do just these very things.

Before I get an army of pitchfork-wielding reading specialists beating down my door, let me clarify that I’m not suggesting we stop giving students specific texts to read. I’m not suggesting we stop teaching reading strategies. Keeping track of story elements is a good thing (but if you story-map your bodice ripper paperback, I really, really don’t want to read it).

What I am suggesting is that these activities are not the end goal. We can train a student in the use of a whole toolbox of reading strategies, but if she doesn’t see the profit in reading, what’s the point?

When I say profit, I’m not talking strictly financial gain, though statistics abound that reinforce the idea that literacy rates and income are connected. Profit derived from reading can be more broadly defined as anything that makes a positive impact.

When I look back on the last 24 hours of my life, I can very easily say that I’ve reaped profit from reading:

  • I assisted several students with science, social studies, and math coursework.
  • I relaxed by reading a work of fiction.
  • I kept somewhat in tune with my elder son’s interests by reading up on (*sigh*) Minecraft.
  • I satisfied my intellectual curiosity by finishing a non-fiction book on the effects of the Colombian Exchange.
  • I researched information on preserving pumpkin puree.
  • A whole bunch of other stuff I can’t think of right now.

We need to remember that all the strategies, standards, required texts, and assessments that somehow manage to take over our professional lives are not the ultimate goal. Raising a student’s reading level isn’t, strictly speaking, the goal… though it’s closer to the point, I guess.

Our ultimate goal is to get students to the point where they can reap profit (monetary, intellectual, affective, etc.) from the act of reading. Literacy is a very powerful tool.

If we crank out young adults who can read, but don’t see the benefit, we’re not producing readers. It’s like teaching someone to swim, knowing full well that they will never again get into a pool unless you toss them in.

If students don’t look to reading as a source of profit, monetary or otherwise, all those skills are wasted. If they go on to deliberately seek out professions and pastimes that do not involve reading, then our instruction essentially begins to fade the moment they step out of the classroom.

Catapulting a student over the magical line between “below proficient” and “proficient” isn’t a success in and of itself. It’s an indication that hard work has been done by the student and teacher, but it’s merely an indicator of what the student can possibly do. Guiding a young adult to make use of those skills of his own accord, for his own profit, is an entirely different hurdle to overcome.

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