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Opinion: Reading, the essential skill

CHICAGO — With not a small amount of disdain, my youngest son — the one who’s addicted to his Xbox video game console — said to his parents the other day: “That’s all you two ever do: work and read.”

A lot of good it’s done us. How we managed to raise two boys who detest reading is beyond me.

Reading to them at bedtime every night, going to story time at our library and encouraging them to read everything from newspapers to magazines, comic books, read-along “books,” audio books, e-books — none of it has made much of a difference.

Some of our biggest professional disappointments have also revolved around not being able to inspire some of our students to love reading too. But as with our own kids, love ultimately has nothing to do with it. Reading is too important to be left to taste or affinity.

My husband and I both determined long ago that for kids and students who don’t love books, the only solution is to treat reading like fruits, vegetables and time off from electronics: a non-negotiable requirement since they don’t think there are any books they’d enjoy.

This is anathema to today’s literacy experts who insist on making reading “easy,” “fun,” “personally meaningful” or “culturally relevant” instead of treating it as what it is: A challenging skill that must be approached with the same rigor and discipline that an algebra or chemistry teacher approaches abstract and symbolic reasoning.

I just about jumped for joy when I read high-school teacher Ilana Garon’s post “Is Literacy Fun-Damental? Teaching Reading for Pleasure” on an Education Week blog. It was a politically incorrect — though true — observation on the myth surrounding what students should read.

“Some might think the students need books about their particular ethnic groups to become interested, but that’s generally not proven true in my case. For instance, a book they appear to have all read and loathed in middle school is Sandra Cisneros’ ‘The House on Mango Street,’ a book no doubt chosen with the well-meaning idea of appealing to a majority of Latino students. ‘Never make us read that book again,’ they plead. … I think the problem with ‘Mango Street,’ despite the potential for cultural connectivity, is that the kids find it somewhat dated — its setting in the 1960s Chicago trumps the fact that the narrator is Latina or a teenager.”

Garon goes on to note that while some of her students can make the leap to understanding, and even liking, books that reflect the life experiences of people unlike themselves, others can relate only to stories about very familiar characters or completely fantastical figures such as vampires or aliens.

But regardless of preferences, it’s vitally important to require children and students to read about real and non-fantasy characters who are nothing like them. They don’t “have” to enjoy it but, like daily exercise, it’s good for them.

Some people are up in arms because the new Common Core curriculum standards call for students to have 70 percent of their reading be in nonfiction by the year 2014. Most of the hand-wringing centers around the fear that there will be fewer books for students to identify with and — because it’s informational reading — overall, less fun will be had.

Boo-hoo.

There’s a portion of the population who, like me, adores reading and will do it for a lifetime of pleasure. But though many will never think that curling up with a great novel is a treat, everyone needs to be able to make sense of informational text.

Obviously, reading fiction is essential for life. As author Ann Patchett put it in a New York Times op-ed bemoaning 2012’s lack of a Pulitzer Prize for fiction: “It is a vital means of imagining a life other than our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic beings.”

But reading to understand your rights and responsibilities, to learn how to apply for college financial aid or to find out what’s expected of you in your new job is a fundamental skill that cannot be ignored.

Don’t hesitate to challenge your students or children to read books, whether informational or enriching, that are well out of their comfort zones. Sometimes putting the nose to the grindstone isn’t fun, but it’s always worthwhile.

Opinion: Reading, the essential skill esthercepedapic parenting family NBC Latino News

Esther Cepeda is syndicated columnist and an NBC Latino contributor. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.

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