I have no lack of opinion about the disadvantages of imposing, “age appropriate,” reading on youth. I was an avid reader and quickly outgrew the selection of books provided by the school library at my middle school. I took saved quarters and bought books from the bestseller rack at the local drugstore. One of my favorite authors, I began reading in 7th grade, was John Grisham. I can recall several instances of my teachers making complaints to my mom about the inappropriateness of my reading material. One time, my mom let me sit in on the complaint. I clearly recall the teacher asking my mom if she thought that the reading material was appropriate for someone my age. In my mind, I couldn’t understand this question… Was she asking if I was able to understand it? The book in question was probably at least 800 pages.. was she asking if the book was too long for me?
The next year, in 8th grade, I began doing my oral book reports on my inappropriate reading selections. I was encouraged, that year, by a teacher who apparently found hope for the next generation in the fact that I was choosing books above the average reading level. But, the differences in opinion about age appropriate reading was confusing to me. I was questioned, had books confiscated, my mom paid visits to teachers… or I was praised for my reading ability and encouraged. I didn’t know what to think about all of that. So, I just did what I wanted to do: Read.
The idea for this post was inspired not only by my own personal experiences but by the experiences of others. I was sitting in on a twitter chat about reading, the other day. The first question was, “What is the first book you remember your parents reading to you?” After scrolling through a list of typical, “See Spot Run,” type books, I felt sad for these people.
I was probably 4 years old. So, I know it’s not the first book my parents read to me. But, The Hobbit is my earliest memory of reading. I clearly remember sitting with my dad, the title, looking at the map inside the book. Whether we completed the book together, or not, I don’t recall. But, that attitude followed me throughout life.. There was no book that was, “too big,” or “too long,” or inappropriate for me. I would read what I wanted to read.
So, without thinking, when my boys were tiny toddlers, they frequently sat in on sessions where I simply read aloud to them whatever book I was currently reading. Of course, they would bring to me books with small words and pretty pictures and I read those, too. But, they were just as happy to sit alongside me while I read pictureless novels 100s of pages long.
Somehow, I got it into my brain with my first son that phonics and sightwords junk would help him. It only confused & frustrated him. Kindergarten came along and turned reading into a competition which only frustrated and intimidated him more. He retreated into an impenetrable shell that no reading could enter for quite some time. It wasn’t until I withdrew him from school, backed off and let him explore it at his own pace that he recovered enough to pick up books on his own and begin reading.
I’m thankful I didn’t make the same mistakes with my youngest son. I didn’t push anything on my younger son.. not even talking. Despite complaints and concerns from others, I stood as protective guard over my younger son being pushed to do things like talk or read. He didn’t decide to talk until he was close to 5 years old, using a handful of sign language to communicate up until that point. When he began to talk, we discovered that he could already read.. I should add that, not only could he read: He could read ANYTHING you put in front of him. Friends of mine thought of it like some sort of performance art and would regularly hand him college level reading material to read aloud. This, to me, clearly demonstrates the difference between being allowed to develop your ability and being forced to develop your ability according to some “age appropriate” schedule.
There is no schedule to follow. Reading isn’t supposed to be a prison designed to keep your mind right where it belongs: in the appropriate place as chosen by whoever. It’s designed to be the opposite of that.. it’s designed to broaden horizons, to present ideas that maybe we aren’t ready for yet… to make us think, to create a sense of curiosity and adventure, to push us outside of our comfort zone, to open the world to us.