cats in the snow  Jan 27 2011 019Dear Friends,

It’s a snow day here, and I crave nothing more than a cup of tea and a good book. But so many of my students don’t feel the same way; they don’t “choose to read,” as parents often despair.

Although it is true that some kids learn to read more easily than do others, love of reading itself is not an inherent personality characteristic but is instead an acquired taste.

In a chicken-and-egg sort of dynamic, “good” readers enjoy reading, and therefore choose to read more often. This extra practice continuously improves their skills, at the same time as the exposure to an ever-wider range of content makes reading ever more fascinating, fueling an ever-greater appetite for the printed word.

Meanwhile, inexperienced readers struggle against multiple obstacles, including non-mastery of the mechanics of the reading process, limited vocabulary and lack of background knowledge. Reading is nothing but drudgery if you find the activity arduous, plus you don’t know the words, AND you can’t relate to the story. Who, under these conditions, would “choose” to read?

I think Amy Chua nailed it when she wrote: Nothing is fun until you’re good at it.It’s for this reason that I believe we need to push our students to read every day (though I favor using a more gentle, less Tiger-Mothery relational style).

Reading should be positioned as a non-negotiable, unremarkable part of the daily routine, in the same category as brushing teeth or walking the dog, a healthy and necessary chore that ultimately becomes so habitual it feels weird to skip it. I suggest to my SAT students that they read for 10-15 minutes per day; over time this small amount will make a huge difference in reading competence and will hopefully entrench itself as a lifetime habit.

When parents complain of their kids “not being readers,” I’m reminded of that other near-universal parental lament: their children are “picky eaters.” This topic of food aversions is another area in which people assume that tastes are inborn and immutable, whereas in fact our liking for all kinds of foods is highly trainable. However, acquiring a new taste takes longer than most people imagine, and parents throw up their hands and cave far too soon to their kids’ demands to live on nothing but pizza and peanut butter.

When Jeffrey Steingarten first landed his job as Vogue magazine’s food critic,

 … I grew morose. For I, like everybody I knew, suffered from a set of powerful, arbitrary, and debilitating attractions and aversions at mealtime. I feared that I could be no more objective than an art critic who detests the color yellow or suffers from red-green color blindness.

 It seemed wrong for a food critic to harbor a long list of hated foods, including kimchi, anchovies, Greek food, chick peas and Indian desserts, but what could he do? Taste was taste, wasn’t it? 


Steingarten read up and discovered this tried-and-true remedy for aversions and phobias, including food aversions (and, I hereby submit, reading aversion…or, for that matter. math aversion!): 

 Exposure, plain and simple.  

Scientists tell us that aversions fade away when we eat moderate doses of the hated foods at moderate intervals, especially if the food is complex and new to us. (Don’t try this with allergies, but don’t cheat either: few of us have genuine food allergies.)… 

Did you know that babies who are breast-fed will later have less trouble with novel foods than those who are given formula? The variety of flavors that make their way into breast milk from the mother’s diet prepares the infant for the culinary surprises that lie ahead.

Most parents give up trying novel foods on their weanlings after two or three attempts and then complain to the pediatrician; this may be the most common cause of fussy eaters and finicky adults…Most babies will accept nearly anything after eight or ten tries. 

Steingarten then proceeded to:

…make eight or ten reservations at Korean restaurants, purchase eight or ten anchovies, search the Zagat guide for eight or ten places with the names Parthenon or Olympia (which I believe are required by statute for Greek restaurants), and bring a pot of water to the boil for cooking eight or ten chickpeas. My plan was simplicity itself: every day for the next six months I would eat at least one food that I detested.

The result was his conquering of all but one dislike (Indian desserts still taste to him like face cream).

And please notice that he allowed himself half a year of daily effort before he expected to see results.

I believe that an appetite for reading (or math!) can be coaxed in this very same way:

  • modest helpings (5-20 minutes)
  • spaced moderately (once per day)
  • presented consistently
  • and not given up on too soon!

…until the aversion is conquered and the taste is acquired!

I loved reading all of Jeffrey Steingarten’s essay, The Man Who Ate Everything.

Annie Murphy Paul explains Why Libraries Are The Best Places to Learn

And a great way to get older kids interested in reading, is to read to them.

Warm Regards,

-Leigh  🙂

[photo of Rudy the cat; he’s thinking that it’s time to come inside and read]