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December 1, 2013

CEPEDA: Reading, the essential skill

With not a small amount of disdain, my youngest son — the one who's addicted to his Xbox video game console — said to his parents the other day: "That's all you two ever do: work and read."

A lot of good it's done us. How we managed to raise two boys who detest reading is beyond me.

Reading to them at bedtime every night, going to story time at our library and encouraging them to read everything from newspapers to magazines, comic books, read-along "books," audio books, e-books — none of it has made much of a difference.

Some of our biggest professional disappointments have also revolved around not being able to inspire some of our students to love reading, too. But as with our own kids, love ultimately has nothing to do with it. Reading is too important to be left to taste or affinity.

My husband and I both determined long ago that for kids and students who don't love books, the only solution is to treat reading like fruits, vegetables and time off from electronics: a non-negotiable requirement since they don't think there are any books they'd enjoy.

This is anathema to today's literacy experts who insist on making reading "easy," "fun," "personally meaningful" or "culturally relevant" instead of treating it as what it is: A challenging skill that must be approached with the same rigor and discipline that an algebra or chemistry teacher approaches abstract and symbolic reasoning.

I just about jumped for joy when I read high-school teacher Ilana Garon's post "Is Literacy Fun-Damental? Teaching Reading for Pleasure" on an Education Week blog. It was a politically incorrect — though true — observation on the myth surrounding what students should read.

"Some might think the students need books about their particular ethnic groups to become interested, but that's generally not proven true in my case. For instance, a book they appear to have all read and loathed in middle school is Sandra Cisneros' 'The House on Mango Street,' a book no doubt chosen with the well-meaning idea of appealing to a majority of Latino students. 'Never make us read that book again,' they plead. ... I think the problem with 'Mango Street,' despite the potential for cultural connectivity, is that the kids find it somewhat dated — its setting in the 1960s Chicago trumps the fact that the narrator is Latina or a teenager."

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