What Reading can do for you

Read for 1 minute or less a day with your children and they may end up in the bottom tenth percentile! (But should you care?)

I’ve seen this graphic (or something very similar) floating around the internet recently. While I agree with the idea that reading with your children is a good thing, I’m not sure if I agree with the hefty role being given to word volume, or the assumption that parents only care about test scores. It’s part of the growing inclination of so many to try and quantify childhood learning.

Of course, some skills are more quantifiable than others: vocabulary, memory, the ability to follow instructions (this list is far from exhaustive). In this sense it’s easy to see how an increase in vocabulary and memory might improve test scores. However, there are so many more important skills that reading helps develop than the capacity to have great test scores.

Children who read find themselves exposed to other ways of thinking, other worlds, and other people, in a much more intimate manner than you find in any other medium.

The characters, ideas, plots, scenarios, and places found within the pages of a book do not stay there; they find a home inside your mind. It’s about as close to telepathic communication as we can get.

When a child reads a story where a character loses their memories, they aren’t simply exposed to a vocabulary-building exercise; they have been given access to some fairly complex notions about identity. This might lead them to ask questions about whether we are the sum of our memories, or something more. In essence, books (and perhaps fantasy books in particular) provide simple, digestible ways of thinking about some pretty big questions.

It kind of bothers me to see test scores held up as the pinnacle of childhood achievement. Test scores can be a great way of gauging a child’s engagement with their learning, but I’m a little dubious about regarding these scores as anything more than that. 

A child’s ability to deal with the world outside of school will have a lot more to do with how much they understand, plus a host of skills that are even harder to quantify.

If a child opts for university they may be surprised to discover how important it is to have a collection of skills that go beyond reading speed, vocabulary, and memory (the more testable skill set). 

I used to tutor Philosophy undergraduates at Edinburgh University and it was amazing to see the way that some students (who came in with less than stellar grades in high school) would somehow overtake their higher scoring classmates. Often this hedged on far less tangible/quantifiable skills than memory etc.

We wanted to see students demonstrate an understanding of the nuances of arguments; memorising facts and figures simply wasn’t enough (though it was of course valuable). What’s more the ability to step outside rote learning and think for themselves enables students to create thought provoking and insightful essays. I learned that high test scores aren’t always a clear indicator that someone will perform well, even in an academic environment.

The abilities of a teacher are often assessed based on the test scores of the children they teach, but this can leave little room for some truly vital skills; like bolstered inquisitiveness, social understanding, and the ability to ground ideas within a real-world backdrop. 

Many teachers do a phenomenal job at encouraging these, and many more, traits (I’ve met a good number of these teachers on the various school talks I’ve done) and I’m fairly certain that these essential skills will be hard to locate by looking at where a child falls within the national ‘percentile’.

Of course we should read to our children for twenty minutes a day, longer if you get the time. For some of us it’s part of the ever-shrinking portion of the day in which we can spend time together, without necessarily having to deal with some kind of screen. 

Not only does it allow you and your child to discuss all kinds of topics and issues, but it also gives you a few moments in which to touch base and enjoy spending time together.

Reading, at least in this context, has much more to do with maintaining relationships and learning about the world we share, than it has to do with building vocabularies and assisting in academic scores. 

Reading shouldn’t be marketed as a fast track road to success (even if the numbers suggest it); it’s an activity that opens dialogue, builds relationships, and encourages inquisitive minds. In short reading opens us up to all of the fantastic skills that make us human, it doesn’t just help us test well.

If you have anything to say about any of the issues I’ve touched on in this post please feel free to share your ideas in the comments, or over on social media (here are the Jack Reusen facebook and twitter accounts). Thanks for reading, all the best, John

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