Sunday, May 20, 2007

Teaching Reading Without Fiction

Ann Althouse, a legal blogger who can be found here, caused a furor by suggesting that teachers should use non-fiction instead of fiction to teach reading and thereby kill multiple birds with one stone (learn science and history facts, say, while practicing reading), and let kids explore storybooks outside of school.

Because I've made fiction my life's project, my first reaction was a bit of knee-jerk outrage -- but then I realized I don't completely disagree with her. Fiction doesn't appeal to every kid, and drawing practice materials from a variety of sources is a fine idea. Rich vocabulary and sentence structure can be found in all kinds of books, and even on the internets. And I don't remember encountering a decent piece of fiction in an English class until at least 8th grade. I wouldn't have minded missing all five volumes of that execrable "Adventures in Reading" textbook.

But I do object to leaving fiction out of reading lessons entirely, and for very specific reasons. Some kids, if not introduced to written narrative and storytelling early in their education, may never acquire a taste for it, and might be denied a huge source of cheap pleasure for the rest of their lives. Reading fiction when you're young teaches you to read it when you're an adult. I was lucky enough to have library-loving parents and shelves of Ray Bradbury at my disposal, but if I hadn't, would high school have been too late to uncover a love of reading? I think it might. I wouldn't be surprised if lots of kids I went to elementary school with thought literature began and ended with "Adventures in Reading" -- and who could blame them? After years reading no fiction except for that, The Scarlet Letter would seem even more impenetrable than it was for those of us who liked reading. (I had to open my window to the January night and stick my feet out of it in order to stay awake by the end.)

(Could the latest trouble the publishing industry is in have anything to do with the fact that the current crop of potential book-buyers were taught to read with truly horrible textbooks? There's hope for the future, then, once the whole-language kids move on from Harry Potter and start buying books on their own.)

And fiction teaches some excellent, if subtle, lessons. There's the basic one: Other people have some of the same thoughts and feelings as you do, and its relative: Other people have lives that are incredibly different from yours. Ann Althouse would no doubt think these pretty weak, namby-pamby lessons (one of her objections to reading fiction is that "it's not tied to economic success in life" -- can't argue with that!) but if our culture is lacking in one thing, I'd say it's empathy. I could be wrong, but I can't help but think that if GWB were a big reader of fiction, he might have a few qualms about such things as Shock and Awe. But that's another post.


Anonymous said...

Hmmm... I disagree with her. I would argue that fiction is critical for imaginative development and fostering creativity and right-brained thinking. At home, the kids these days have video games, TV, and internet, which do all the imagination for them, so they don't have to think too hard to imagine much. Fiction requires that you take an active role in thinking and in the creative experience.

laura said...

Library-loving parents and shelves of Ray Bradbury? Hey, that sounds just like my life!
The trained Reading Teacher in me reacts to the F vs. NF debate with: (as said from a soapbox)reading material must first be salient to the reader. Even the slightest bit of meaning-making and connection-making can motivate a child to turn the page. Hopefully the more experienced readers in a child's life can guide him to a well-written piece of writing. Be it F or NF.

rmellis said...

Sis... is that you??

laura said...

Whatthe... did you have a one-eared cat named Waltie, too??
Having said that, I do feel that the element of empathy is at the root of appreciating creative works. Kids "these days" may have more techno-gadgetry to play with, but it's empathy that develops an imagination. My kids were imaginative long before they could read, play video games or watch Teletubbies. I attribute that to values education, being eye-level with lots of dogs and playing dress-up. Luckily, books are another way my kids can experience different realities, both real and make-believe. Can teachers really teach the esthetics of reading? (Student: I don't get it. Teacher: Imagine it's happening to you, dammit!)There's got to be room for both F and NF in a classroom, so that kids can have access to both depending on their own ability to empathize. Perhaps with a touch less emphasis on Leveled Readers and more on "authentic" texts. P.S. I loved my People Need People and Special Happenings readers!!

bhadd said...

Written fictive crap outperforms factual right? So maybe Althouse needs a recommender?

The Hood Company

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