I come from a family of readers. As the youngest of five, I inherited lots of books from my sisters and brothers and probably read well outside my reading level early on. I only remember being told I couldn’t or shouldn’t read a book one time, and that was by a public librarian. She kicked me out of the young adult section because I was too young, and my mom took me back and told her I had permission to check out anything I wanted. My mother’s philosophy was that if I started reading a book and didn’t like it, I would put it down and pick something else, and if it was above my head, I’d lose interest quickly.
In 8th grade, my homeroom teacher jokingly asked me if I’d read every book in the library because I spent so much time there. I don’t think I read them all, but I know I read some of them multiple times, and each time I learned something new. In high school, an overzealous school board banned Stephen King books, so my English teacher brought in her personal copies for me to read. It wasn’t the quality literature she was teaching in Brit Lit, but she understood my love of books. In college, my roommates and I celebrated the end of semester exams by buying the latest popular fiction to read, just for the sake of reading.
In all of those times, I read for the pure enjoyment of the story. I have never sat up late at night to finish a novel and then asked myself basic comprehension questions. I have favorite authors and series I read that are not challenging at all, but I can’t wait for the next release. I still laugh with C when he shares Captain Underpants (definitely well below my reading level). I love books, and I credit my parents and amazing teachers who encouraged me to open books and slide into stories but never asked me to write reports or take tests on my free reading.
I want the same experiences for my children. They have been surrounded by books from the day they were born. As toddlers, they asked for the same story over and over; memorizing every nuance so they could later pick up the book and ‘read’ it themselves. The look of joy on S’s face when she had No David! down pat is irreplaceable. When she decided to tackle the Harry Potter series the summer before third grade, I thought she was a little young but pulled my copies off the shelf. She struggled through the first one, asking lots of questions, but she finished and loved it. Before she started the second, she spent about a week rereading Magic Treehouse books because she could cruise through one in an afternoon. Her brain needed to just read without effort. The summer before second grade, C discovered the joys of graphic novels, and he devoured the Bones series, rereading parts, asking questions and wanting to know what words meant. It wasn’t easy for him, but he wanted to read them, and I wasn’t about to tell him no. By the third book in the series, he was connecting characters and asking totally different questions.
I watch my children read at home, and there is a difference when it is for homework and when it is for fun. Homework reading involves watching the clock, looking at questions first, and rushing to get done with the required time frame. It’s “I don’t need to know that.” “That word’s not on my list.” Reading for fun is sprawled out on the floor, lying on the dog, a flashlight under the blankets late at night. This kind of reading leads to snacks, perfect silence, sudden bursts of laughter, a half-dozen books pulled from the shelf, and pleas to stay up just a little longer to finish a page, a chapter, the whole book.
Reading for pleasure should be just that. No strings, no plans, no limits; just reading. When we tie a grade to it or mandate a time frame, we devalue reading and limit the world of books by imposing our thoughts and views on the reader. We need to stop trying to judge reading for pleasure through reading logs, Accelerated Reader, and Lexile scores. I understand the need to assess learning, but we have to embrace the fact that some things are not quantifiable.