Learning to Read

When you work in education, you spend a lot of time discussing reading. Reading is rightly considered the sine qua non of a person’s education; it is the fundamental skill required to access over 85% of knowledge.

Education research has identified a strong correlation between elementary literacy and degree attainment: second graders who struggle to read are extremely likely to become high school dropouts. By the third grade, you can use a student’s reading ability to predict with 70% accuracy whether he or she will drop out of high school.1 One million students drop out of American high schools every year, and high school dropouts commit about 78% of juvenile crime in this country. In one of the great puzzles of American society, we spend three to five times more on incarceration than we do on education, based on annual expenditures per prisoner and per pupil. For every dollar we invest today in elementary reading instruction, we directly and unequivocally lower tomorrow’s crime rate and unnecessary prison expenditures.

Literacy is a major problem and, therefore, a huge opportunity to change society for the better. But literacy is multi-faceted. It involves reading, writing, speaking, cultural knowledge, and technological proficiency. Without the ability to read, though, all other areas of literacy and knowledge wilt and die.

We all must learn how to read. But it seems to me that our society suffers from another reading deficiency. Many of us know how to read, but we never learned why to read or what to read. Let me illustrate from my personal experience.

As a high schooler, I boasted of my vast library of CliffsNotes. I owned the distilled works of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Hemingway, and Steinbeck (among others) in hazard-striped, mustard-yellow pamphlets. I would chuckle when the dutiful girls in my AP English class would rub their bloodshot eyes and complain about reading Joyce into the wee hours of the morning. I had assimilated the themes and main characters of Ulysses in less than thirty minutes. Had I read it, though? With Clintonian circumlocution, I would have argued that the answer depended upon how one defined “read.”

Knowing how to read and cultivating the practice of reading are two entirely different things, like knowing how to fish and actually catching fish with rod and reel. When I go fly fishing with our esteemed Technical Editor, Elton Conrady, I look like a fisherman. I own the proper gear, and I generally know how to use it. I stand in the cold water with my neoprene waders, well-stocked pocketed fishing vest, and Sage fly rod, and I cast a lonely line into the empty water. Upstream a few hundred feet, Elton catches fish after fish after son-of-a-fish. I grasp the concepts required for fishing, but Elton is a fisherman.

A real fisherman catches fish, and a real reader catches knowledge.

I had aced all of the required tests of reading fluency and comprehension from kindergarten through high school, but I didn’t become a reader until I was about nineteen. I became engrossed in my Christian faith around that time, and I sought hard truths that answered complex questions. Up until then, I had been told what to read but not why to read it. I had been force-fed answers to questions I’d never asked. At nineteen, for the first time in my life, I became intellectually aggressive. Books melted in my hands like sticky cotton candy. I walked out of the library many nights with teetering stacks of musty books that hadn’t been checked out for years. I became a regular loitering customer at the tweedy local independent bookstore. I perused the shelves of the university bookstore, snapping up random course packets and intriguing, obscure textbooks. I scrawled notes in margins and sketchbooks, and I developed a personal system of weighted brackets and underlines to highlight key passages. I consumed those books, and they consumed me.

But it wasn’t about the books or the pages or the sentences or the clauses. It was about the expression of ideas. And I needed ideas; I needed answers. I had lived theretofore as a small-minded, small-pond kid with a big ego bolstered by my big ignorance. Like 99.9% of high school students, I had the world figured out. With 1.8 decades of hard-won experience, I had written newspaper columns and shouldered trophies and signed yearbooks and pronounced valedictions. But my scale-dropping existential crisis showed me that my arrogance mirrored my ignorance. I had known everything that I knew I needed to know. I had solved petty problems and had been feted with hollow recognition, and now I desired substance and sinew and sap.

There is certainly a romance to the act of reading: the leather chairs and oak bookcases, the soaring cathedral ceilings and stained glass windows, the quilt and the lawn and the dappled sunlight. But the act of reading is not the same as the practice of reading. The act is an event, a Sunday afternoon drive. The practice is a lifestyle, a pursuit of understanding that spans decades. Reading is a defining activity in the life of a reader.

A reader is transported and transfigured. A reader is a perspiring student being peppered with questions at Plato’s Academy. A reader is tutored in physics by Newton at Cambridge and by Einstein at Princeton. A reader is a silent observer in a dark corner of an Oxford pub where the Inklings are discussing fairies and faith. A reader imbibes the pipe tobacco and the clacking and zipping of an Underwood typewriter at Faulkner’s Rowan Oak. A reader drifts down the Mississippi River on a log raft with a rumpled orphan and a runaway slave as America passes by.

Alone before the page, a reader learns that she is not alone. That William Shakespeare asked the very same questions she asks. That Emily Dickinson understood the magic of the ordinary that she sees. That our wars and tragedies and mistakes are not exclusive to our generation. That our problems are not original and that our solutions needn’t be either.

The inactive pose of the reader’s body belies the transactive experience of the reader’s mind. My life was changed when I became a reader. I knew how to read long before I knew why to read. When professors, tutors, and friends recommend what to read, they unlock the door to a salon where age-old conversations connect ancient and modern, expert and novice.

So read books that you can only comprehend if you pluck the words like single grapes from a twisting vine. Read stories that silence you like a mouth full of razorblades. Read biographies that inspire you to attempt great feats at any cost. Read histories of bygone days that uncover what is happening in our own times. Gird yourself, and read of horrors that should never be repeated that you might stop them the next time. Read philosophy and poetry like honey dribbled on a single bite of hot flour biscuit. Read stories that give you chills and sentences that catch in your throat. Read until you grasp the problem, and read until you can fathom the solution. Read roast-turkey-with-all-the-trimmings books, not just soda-pop magazines, cookie-dough bestsellers, or Lean Cuisine self-help manuals. Do not stop reading until your eyes have grown dim and your ears hear but a whisper. May the coals of your life even then inspire and ignite other tinder, fellow reader.

  1. The precise matrix includes reading ability, GPA, prior retention, and IQ, but at least three of the four constituent metrics are, at the early elementary level, almost exclusively tied to reading ability.
About Ben Ponder, Editor-at-Large

Ben Ponder, PhD, is Editor-at-Large at Media Rostra. Ben has received decorative pieces of paper conferring upon him an unnamed set of “rights and privileges accorded thereto” from the University of Arkansas, Regent College, and Northwestern University (where he was a Presidential Fellow). He studied (in alphabetical order) architecture, classics, communication, history, political science, rhetoric, and theology. He is the author of American Independence: From Common Sense to the Declaration (“Sizzling.” – TMZ) and the co-editor of Making the Case: Advocacy and Judgment in Public Argument (“Six-pack abs-olutely great!” – US Weekly). Ben is currently an executive in the educational software industry. He and his organic wife, Amy, live with their four free-range kids in a farmhouse Ben designed and built. His personal site on the Interweb is benponder.com, and he can be reached on Twitter @ponderben.