Books: Bring the Classics to Life

Learning is ever in the freshness of its youth,
Even for the old. (Aeschylus)

But many people read little, if at all. The U.S. Department of Education reports that 44% of American adults do not read even one book in a year’s time, and 50% of American adults cannot read an eighth-grade level book. The estimated cost of illiteracy to taxpayers and businesses is $20 billion annually. Consider these dismal statistics:
– 50% of the unemployed are functionally illiterate
– Kindergarten students typically have seen more than 5,000 hours of television
– 27% of army enlistees can’t read training manuals written at the 7th grade level
– 85% of juvenile offenders have problems reading

Reading plays a key role in getting a professional job. High school graduates who enroll in college are expected to master a significant amount of course material through reading assignments. As a college writing instructor, I can tell identify readers among my first-year college students. Typically they have a handle on college vocabulary, can better articulate their ideas during class discussion, and generally organize and express their thoughts more effectively than non-readers.

How well a student reads is the single best predictor of college success, says Dr. Susanna K. Horn, Writing Coordinator at The University of Akron Wayne College. “I think all students should read Greek/Roman mythology. It will help them understand and/or give them a historical perspective of some of the newer fantasy literature/video games/ filmsÃ?¯Ã?¿Ã?½I would even go so far as to recommend comic book versions.” Classics should become a part of your child’s reading library.

So what can parents do to whet a child’s an appetite for quality literature?

1. Read to your children-often–before they start school. The National Household Education Survey found that 57% of children ages 3-5 who were read to fewer than three times a week could read or pretend to read storybooks, compared to 77% of the same age group who were read to more than three times a week.

The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study found that 15% of children who were read to at least three times a week at the time they entered kindergarten displayed sight-word recognition skills, compared to 8% who were read to fewer than three times a week.
Sue Morgan, who barely made it out of high school with passing grades, read to her sons as infants. Each night she would put them to bed and then settle herself in a rocker to share fairy tales and picture books. As they grew older, so did the reading material. Adventure stories and later, classic novels like Huckleberry Finn and The Count of Monte Cristo introduced the boys to philosophical ideals via entertaining plots and realistic characters. Now grown, both boys graduated near the top of their class and went on to college.

When reading aloud, use voice inflections, facial expressions, and vocal adaptations to hold your kids’ interest. Reading aloud is a form of drama, so don’t stint on the acting! Make reading a fun, entertaining, interactive activity that kids look forward to and remember afterward.

2. Keep varied reading materials on hand. The NAEP 2000 national reading assessment of fourth-graders found above-average scores among students who reported more types of reading material at home. From story books to comic books, poetry to novels, and magazines to anthologies, stock the family’s bookshelves with an assortment that will suit various moods or needs. For example, introduce your elementary students to Dr. Seuss’ rhyme and join in the cadence. Shop yard sales and discount shelves for age-appropriate biographies, histories, novels, adventures, and other literary genres. Offer your kids a healthy selection of “brain food,” just as you provide a palate-tempting array of healthy nutrients-veggies included!

3. Help them apply what they read to their lives. Encourage adolescents to read other teens’ life stories, either real ones like The Diary of Anne Frank or fictional characters like those in Judy Blume’s tales. Over dinner suggest they compare their lives to characters in the stories. Encourage preteens to keep a journal to record thoughts, emotions, and important events. Those turbulent puberty years provide incentive for exploring raw emotions through reading and writing poetry or short fiction as a means of self-expression.

Hand high schoolers a copy of Poe’s tales, Longfellow’s poems, or Shakespeare’s plays. Hopefully their teachers are on the “same page.” Dr. Horn believes that reading the classics before coming to college helps to prepare students for higher education. “High school students whose English teachers encourage in-class readings are most fortunate; they get to hear the music of the language! Being exposed to the “sound” of Shakespeare may bring to life the poets of a new generation.”

Take a son or daughter out for ice cream and ask his or her thoughts about the writing. Help them stage a reading, poetry recital, or drama reenactment for family members during a holiday visit or for neighbors as a summer or winter get-together with lemonade or hot chocolate. Inviting teens’ interpretations of classic works reassures them their views are valid and appreciated.

4. Model life-long reading habits. Before college, the best indicator of a child’s success in school is the mother’s educational level. But even moms lacking college degrees or high school diplomas can recognize the value of literature as a learning tool.
For years education experts have said that parents who get involved with their children’s education have a positive impact on their kids’ academic success. Yet parental schedules are hectic; many sadly do not follow their children’s schoolwork or reading habits. A survey of public elementary school personnel revealed that 87% perceived a lack of time on the part of the parents to become involved with their child’s education.

Instead of turning on the television at night, curl up on the sofa with a good book. Do it often enough, and one of the kids may join you at the other end. Refer to authors and their works knowledgeably, and listen thoughtfully to your children’s views even if they contradict yours or lack thorough understanding of the work’s meaning.

Give the kids their own bookshelves and a reading “place” in the family or living room, complete with comfy seat and adequate lighting. Have a family reading hour accompanied by popcorn or s’mores and milk. Place reading at the literal center of your home by building it into a daily routine.

5. Utilize community support services. Take, don’t send, your kids to the library regularly. Browse the stacks yourself, and utilize other holdings like magazines, music CD’s, and foreign language cassettes. Borrow the free videos offered by many libraries to help your kids develop an appreciation of the library-sponsored life-enhancing services. They may become so comfortable they’ll ask you to return instead of opting for a film rental or other technological recreation.

Enroll in your library’s summer reading program, and urge your kids to do likewise. One mother pays her children a penny a page to read over the summer. Another competes with her kids to see how many books they can read. Visit book fairs, library sales, and thrift stores for bargains. When kids outgrow a set of books, suggest they make a donation to the school, library, or social organization where others can benefit as learning is passed along. Praise kids for sharing books that may improve others’ lives.
Reading bestows the gift of imagination and encourages freedom of thought. Kids who are read to or who read for themselves do better in school, achieve higher scores in verbal acuity tests and reading comprehension, develop a sophisticated vocabulary and command of the language, and demonstrate fluid, concrete, and lofty ideas. Not a bad return on a one-dollar garage sale investment!

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