Friday, February 12, 2010

Do We Share our Passion for Reading?

Guest Blogger: Joanne DeBoy

Reading is a subject and a process that reaches all levels of the education world and is a topic of discussion by students, parents, teachers, professors and politicians. It has been used as a political football in terms of funding; Should schools/programs receive funding for their poor reading performance? Should schools receive incentives monies for exceptional reading performance as measured on a standardized test? Debates ensue as to which strategy should be used to improve reading performance by those in the field and well as by those without formal education in the psychology of reading (the process). Some questions that confront the reading field today are:
  • What is meant by “proficient” reading performance?
  • Do standardized tests deliver what they purport to deliver?
  • How can we obtain the critical reading performance levels of 53.2 million K-12 students in a cost-efficient manner?
  • How does critical thinking relate to reading comprehension? Can critical thinking be taught?
  • Which instructional approach is more beneficial: top-down or bottom-up?
  • How and to what extent does decoding and phonemic awareness relate to reading performance?
  • How has the view of reading instruction changed with the increased use of technology?
  • Given the wide range of available electronic information, will books be essential in the future?
  • Will email, texting, etc. undermine or enhance writing/reading proficiency?

Despite the many discussions regarding the above topics and many more issues, the numbers of students in the United States who are avid and enthusiastic readers is shockingly small (Guthrie, McGough, Bennett & Rice, 1996). Research suggests that even those who have the cognitive ability to read choose not to read; thus, they have been dubbed “alliterate”.

Reading instructional programs designed to improve students’ performance have been in the K-12th grade curriculum since the establishment of normal schools (teacher preparation programs) and has been in the media recently, courtesy of the federally-funded No Child Left Behind mandate. However, the reading instruction issue does not stop at the basic education level; both community colleges and 4 year colleges and universities have recognized the need for reading support and instruction for college students for some 35 years. This, too, has engendered heated discussion at many levels.

Four years ago, Lincoln University’s Board of Trustees, administrators and many faculty members identified the need to require our students to read beyond assigned textbooks. For that reason we have been creating a reading list of books that students should read. It should be noted that Lincoln University is not alone in providing a reading list of extra-curricular books with content to which our college students should be exposed.

However, I am recommending an additional step to enhance a love of reading based upon research by Applegate and Applegate (2004) that connected the teaching of reading (or any other subject) to the Peter Effect. The subjects in the research were pre-service teachers, many of whom mirrored the reading behaviors of many college students: they have the cognitive ability to read but choose not to do so. The authors identified the problem in somewhat biblical terms, recalling the story of Apostle Peter who, when asked for money by a beggar replied that he could not give what he did not have (Acts 3:5). The research finding was disheartening; many pre-service teachers do not have a love of reading to pass on to students. How can teachers/ professors give what they do not have—a love or passion for reading, learning or specific content? How can we share the feelings, the insights, the connections and relevancy that we receive through the written word if we don’t possess it ourselves? We must share that love of reading that we feel when we reflect on those books that resonated with us, touched our souls and remained a part of our very being. Those are the books, ideas, topics, essays that we need to share with our students so that they might become afire with a love of reading/learning.

A book that was recommended by the Biology Department for the Lincoln University Reading List, still being developed, was “The Double Helix” by Watson and Crick (1951). I was moved to remembering the pictures I had in my head in my earlier college years when I was given the assignment to read that book. I can still visualize the two graduate student researchers in the early years of their careers doing their work and discussing their ideas about DNA in that small cluttered room. I don’t remember if the book was assigned for Biology, Microbiology or the Physiology of Behavior but I do remember connecting to those graduate students doing their research as I read that book.

There are reading skills and strategies that can be taught to students to help with their reading comprehension. However, most college professors have not had formal instruction regarding the reading process, reading skills or strategies. What all educators should model to our students is our love/passion for reading and learning and what we have experienced through the written word.


  1. You raised a really good point, Joanne. It made me stop and think. I always talk about the importance of reading with my basic writing students, telling them that the more reading they do the better writers they will become, and the more they'll internalize the "mysteries" of things like comma placement and sentence boundaries. But I don't often think about recommending specific books or even letting them know how much I love to read. Your post has made me realize I need to be a better role model. Perhaps I won't require them to read my particular favorite, Proust, but I can certainly talk more about the joy reading his novels brought me. I'd be interested in knowing other faculty members favorite books or authors.

  2. Reading for information and reading for the love of it are certainly different and the second makes the first easier. Discipline is required to read for courses, and many students don't seem to have even that. A passion for learning rather than reading helped me to read science texts in college - no one ever had to tell me to take my nose out of that organic chemistry book and eat my dinner.

    I had a passion for both reading and learning and they were different though related. I think the passion to learn is missing in too many students as well.

    I have heard casual discussions about whether the exposure to fast-paced, multi-layered media will lead students to learn differently. And I wonder if they will learn and know different things than readers know. There is some research on this, but we really don't seem to know how multimedia affects the process of learning.

    All said, one of my favorite topics is books. I love books and libraries and bookstores. When I have moved to a new place, my first establishing act has been to get a library card and locate an independent bookstore. Linda, I read memoirs and current novels and some of my favorite writers are Mary Oliver, Annie Dillard, Willa Cather, James Joyce, Conrad Richter, James Wright...but not Proust.