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December 1, 2013

CEPEDA: Reading, the essential skill

(Continued)

Garon goes on to note that while some of her students can make the leap to understanding, and even liking, books that reflect the life experiences of people unlike themselves, others can relate only to stories about very familiar characters or completely fantastical figures such as vampires or aliens.

But regardless of preferences, it's vitally important to require children and students to read about real and non-fantasy characters who are nothing like them. They don't have to enjoy it but, like daily exercise, it's good for them.

Some people are up in arms because the new Common Core curriculum standards call for students to have 70 percent of their reading be in nonfiction by the year 2014. Most of the hand-wringing centers around the fear that there will be fewer books for students to identify with and — because it's informational reading — overall, less fun will be had.

Boo-hoo.

There's a portion of the population who, like me, adores reading and will do it for a lifetime of pleasure. But though many will never think that curling up with a great novel is a treat, everyone needs to be able to make sense of informational text.

Obviously, reading fiction is essential for life. As author Ann Patchett put it in a New York Times op-ed bemoaning 2012's lack of a Pulitzer Prize for fiction: "It is a vital means of imagining a life other than our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic beings."

But reading to understand your rights and responsibilities, to learn how to apply for college financial aid or to find out what's expected of you in your new job is a fundamental skill that cannot be ignored.

Don't hesitate to challenge your students or children to read books, whether informational or enriching, that are well out of their comfort zones. Sometimes putting the nose to the grindstone isn't fun, but it's always worthwhile.

Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. She can be reached at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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