Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Why Assigning Books or Reading Time is a Bad Idea

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I don’t think children should be assigned specific books. I also don’t think children should be assigned specific reading times or amounts. Basically? I don’t think that reading should ever be compulsory.

Some of the biggest pushback I get when I say this is from people who fondly remember the works they were introduced to thanks to assignments in English class: If I hadn’t had to read Pride and Prejudice I probably never would have. I’m glad to hear of people discovering Things They Love, in whatever way they do. However, I find the underlying assumption that coercion is the best way to force someone to love something to be troubling, to say the least.

Compulsion is not the best way to create passion. This one should be obvious, really. For everyone who loves a book they were assigned in school, there are probably at minimum two other people who hated it, and decided they’d never go near that author again (or never touch another classic, or in some cases just avoid reading altogether). Humans as a whole do not react well to being forced to do things they don’t want to do, and often develop a strong resistance to the subject or thing they are being coerced into doing.

Compulsion shows a fundamental distrust of the child. “I know what’s best for you to do, so you should do it and like it.” Nowhere in an assigned reading list is there room for a child to make their own decisions, to explore what they’re most drawn to. And there’s little more room for a child to set their own pace, their own priorities, and their own goals within assigned reading times or logs, which turn what should be something joyful into a chore. Every piece of a child’s learning that is taken out of their hands is another signal to them that they are incompetent, untrustworthy, and incapable of learning on their own, which is such a sad message to be sending children.

Sharing really is caring. Enthusiasm is often infectious. If there are books that had a big impact on someone in their formative years, or that seem culturally important, or that they think a kid will like, it’s great to suggest reading it, to borrow it from the library and leave in a stack of books-I-think-you’ll-like, to initiate a read-aloud...It’s definitely the role of adults in children’s lives to expose them to things, to make suggestions, to share passions. But all that can be done without bringing coercion into the mix.

Developing a personal relationship with stories. As someone who really, deeply loves novels, who comes from a family of readers, I feel very strongly about the importance of individuals developing their own unique relationships with literature and more broadly with the written word (or spoken word! Audiobooks are great if that’s your jam). As all of us who love books know, they can be truly magical, but only if they remain an enticing option, and not the brussel sprouts of the learning world: do it because it’s good for you, not because it tastes good.

Ultimately, no one has control over what another person will like, or love, or be curious or passionate about. All you ever have is influence, and when used both enthusiastically and respectfully, you have the power to introduce exciting and beautiful things into the lives of children… Without compulsion.

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