When I was in elementary school, I was heavily into the Accelerated Reading program. I read all the books I could so I could get one of those flexible sticky-hands or any of the other prizes offered. It was like a competition to see just how many books I could read.
What that program did was use positive re-enforcement to get us to understand the value of reading and learning. By the time I got to middle school and was no longer an Accelerated Reader, I had already become a bookworm. Throughout middle school and high school, I prided myself on being a fast reader; I read "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" in an entire day and still sometimes read that fast.
But for many students, the Accelerated Reading program wasn't enough. I read a lot before then, so it came natural to me. But by the time many students got to high school, they lost that love for books and learning.
Reading is Fun reports that 53 percent of 4th graders read for fun, but for 8th graders, the number drops to 20 percent. Statisticbrain.com reports that 33 percent of high-school graduates and 42 percent of college graduates never pick up a book after graduation. Eighty percent of U.S. families never buy books. But Reading is Fun also reports that 4th graders who have more than 25 books at their house test better than those who don't.
Income levels too often determine a love of reading and reading skills; i.e., those who are from a higher income bracket and have easier access to books are more likely to be proficient in reading and go further in life. But even those from a lower bracket can still excel if they are exposed to books. Researchers generally agree, though, that low-income children have a greater learning loss during the summer than those who come from high-income backgrounds, so they may not be as proficient in reading.
Those who don't read enough as children and who subsequently don't have great reading skills often have harder lives than their counterparts. Literarystatistics.com reports that two-thirds of students who can't read proficiently by the end of 4th grade will end up in jail or on welfare. The site also reports that 16- to 19-year-old girls who live at poverty level with poor reading skills are more likely to have children born out of wedlock.
I'm a firm believer in the idea that if you want to get a great education, have a successful career and be a generally well-rounded person, the first step is reading. If it hadn't been for the love of books instilled in me at an early age, I probably wouldn't be where I am today. But I'm just one person who took something as gimmicky as Accelerated Reading and turned it into something that persists today. Not everyone can say the same thing.
What are the benefits of books and reading? You learn about different cultures and customs. You get to travel to many different places and become different characters. You have the ability to further your knowledge of things you already know about and also find new ideas and ways of thinking. You're introduced to new perspectives and get to explore distant lands. If you have a bad day, a good book can make you laugh.
No matter what's going on in your life, if you just sit down to read a book, you get to escape and be someone else for a while. One could say that reading even gives a person a better sense of empathy. Maybe you meet someone similar to a character in a book and though a book isn't exactly like the real world, you can still empathize a little better. And did I say that you get to be someone else? Oscar Wilde once said: "It is what you read when you don't have to that determines what you will be when you can't help it."
On another note, reading introduces children to the possibility of being writers themselves. Through reading, they improve their comprehension and vocabulary and may discover that they like the idea of writing novels. You may have the next Richard Wright or J.K. Rowling on your hands.
But it's not enough to simply try to get children to like reading in elementary school and then ruin that love by force-feeding students books. That's how a lot of my classmates began hating reading. Reading became a chore to them because we knew we would be tested on what we learned. I even fell privy to that, which is why, to this day, I've never read "The Diary of Anne Frank" and remember nothing from "The Hobbit."
Scholastic has a few suggestions to get students to read more.
Instead of a standard testing format, why not have a discussion or do a short essay? Find books that interest them. Introduce them to the classics but also let them read something that will be interesting to them. If they aren't interested, let them move on to the next book. What turns people off to reading is being forced to do it. Let them read at their own pace. Not everyone reads fast and some people take more time to absorb information.
Besides giving children more access to books, I think the key is to not force children to read. Yes, they need to read in school, but if you know they won't like the selection, choose something else. In eighth grade, we had to read books like "The B.F.G.," "The Giver" and "James and the Giant Peach," and you know what? I enjoyed reading those books and still regard them as some of my favorites.
The college graduate statistic is probably true. Life simply gets too busy as an adult. These days, it's hard for me to find a time to read, since I don't get many moments to myself anymore. I plan to remedy that.
Whether you read or not as an adult, it's important to teach children the value of reading. No matter how you do it, remember to introduce them to a variety of books. And, teachers, I know it's important to read in school but don't make your students hate it. All of us should step up and help out the next generation. These kids are the future of the U.S. and the world. Let them discover themselves through reading.
Assistant Editor Amber Helsel received her bachelor's degree in journalism from Ole Miss. She is short, always hungry and always thinking.