A few weeks ago I stumbled across this terrific radio interview with Walter Dean Myers. Myers is a well-known award-winning African American author of young adult fiction and non-fiction who writes with a brutal and raw honesty.
In this interview, he points out a simple but vital fact: “… very often books are looked upon as a wonderful adjunct to our lives. It’s so nice. Books can take you to faraway places and this sort of thing. But then it all sounds as if it’s something nice but not really necessary. And during my lifetime things have changed so drastically. You can’t do well in life if you don’t read well“.
Myers goes on to explain “what’s changed in society, you had more industrial jobs when I was coming up. My dad was a janitor for U.S. Radium Corporation, and he stayed there for 37 years. So he didn’t read. The average working person could work in a factory but now you don’t have those (jobs) anymore. And not only that, but the jobs that you do have may not be around in five years”.
Myers is highlighting a huge societal change. Society is becoming more highly educated and of necessity, more literate. There are fewer jobs for unskilled workers available, and minimum requirements are becoming more demanding.
In centuries past, the wealthier classes were educated and literate; the ability to read was a given for the wealthy. The illiterate made up the poorer classes, those who worked in the most menial jobs. For poorer people, the ability to read was a prized and treasured skill possessed by a lucky few.
Over the years we have become lazy, particularly in wealthy countries. As Myers points out, we have come to see reading as a hobby, a pursuit and an adjunct to our lives. It is no longer seen as important. (When was the last time you heard someone described with admiration as a ‘well-read’ person?)
This dismissal of the importance of reading has perhaps been driven by the age of the media and computer, where much of our information is obtained visually via television or YouTube. How interesting then that due largely to computers, many unskilled jobs have disappeared. The jobs for people who cannot read are fewer and further between. The workforce has changed and we all need to be literate to access the written word, in either print or digital form.
Perhaps we have come full circle and the skill of literacy, and the claim of being ‘well-read’ will become as important in the 21st century as it was in the late 18th and early 19th century.
We can no longer afford to regard reading as a habit, pastime or an adjunct. It is an essential life skill and underpins every aspect of education and learning. And it is important to note that Myers says to do well in life you have to read well. In other words, it’s not simply about decoding the text, it is about understanding and interpreting the text. Simply put, it’s about being a ‘good reader’. In my opinion, the best way to become a good reader, that is a reader who can interpret, evaluate and reflect upon text, is to read often and to read plenty.
If your child or teenager is a reluctant reader, it is not too late to get them reading. Start with the Reading Rules
It is never too late to start.