Mr. Eure | Brewster High School
How Teachers Make Children Hate Reading
April 17, 2013Posted by on
The following essay is by an educator named John Holt. Learn more about him here. As a continuation of our discussion of reading in general, study this argument, and then share your reactions in the comments section. If you would like to see what my tenth graders had to say about this article, you can look here.
How Teachers Make Children Hate Reading | John Holt
When I was teaching English at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School, I used to ask my students the kinds of questions that English teachers usually ask about reading assignments—questions designed to bring out the points that I had decided they should know. They, on their part, would try to get me to give them hints and clues as to what I wanted. It was a game of wits. I never gave my students an opportunity to say what they really thought about a book.
I gave vocabulary drills and quizzes too. I told my students that every time they came upon a word in their book they did not understand, they were to look it up in the dictionary. I even devised special kinds of vocabulary tests, allowing them to use their books to see how the words were used. But looking back, I realize that these tests, along with many of my methods, were foolish.
My sister was the first person who made me question my conventional ideas about teaching English. She had a son in the seventh grade in a fairly good public school. His teacher had asked the class to read Cooper’s The Deerslayer. The choice was bad enough in itself; whether looking at man or nature, Cooper was superficial, inaccurate and sentimental, and his writing is ponderous and ornate. But to make matters worse, this teacher had decided to give the book the microscope and x-ray treatment. He made the students look up and memorize not only the definitions but the derivations of every big word that came along—and there were plenty. Every chapter was followed by close questioning and testing to make sure the students “understood” everything.
Being then, as I said, conventional, I began to defend the teacher, who was a good friend of mine, against my sister’s criticisms. The argument soon grew hot. What was wrong with making sure that children understood everything they read? My sister answered that until this year her boy had always loved reading, and had read a lot on his own; now he had stopped. (He was not really to start again for many years.)
Still I persisted. If children didn’t look up the word they didn’t know, how would they ever learn them? My sister said, “Don’t be silly! When you were little you had a huge vocabulary, and were always reading very grown-up books. When did you ever look up a word in a dictionary?”
She had me. I don’t know that we had a dictionary at home; if we did, I didn’t use it. I don’t use one today. In my life I doubt that I have looked up as many as fifty words, perhaps not even half that.
Since then I have talked about this with a number of teachers. More than once I have said, “According to tests, educated and literate people like you have a vocabulary of about twenty-five thousand words. How many of these did you learn by looking them up in a dictionary?” They usually are startled. Few claim to have looked up even as many as a thousand. How did they learn the rest?
They learned them just as they learned to talk—by meeting words over and over again, in different contexts, until they saw how they fitted.
Unfortunately, we English teachers are easily hung up on this matter of understanding. Why should children understand everything they read? Why should anyone? Does anyone? I don’t, and I never did. I was always reading books that teachers would have said were “too hard” for me, books full of words I didn’t know. That’s how I got to be a good reader. When about ten, I read all the D’Artagnan stories and loved them. It didn’t trouble me in the least that I didn’t know why France was at war with England or who was quarreling with whom in the French court or why the Musketeers should always be at odds with Cardinal Richelieu’s men. I didn’t even know who the Cardinal was, except that he was a dangerous and powerful man that my friends had to watch out for. This was all I needed to know.
Having said this, I will now say that I think a big, unabridged dictionary is a fine thing to have in any home or classroom. No book is more fun to browse around in—if you’re not made to. Children, depending on their age, will find many pleasant and interesting things to do with a big dictionary. They can look up funny-sounding words which they like, or long words, which they like, or forbidden words, which they like best of all. At a certain age, and particularly with a little encouragement from parents or teachers, they may become very interested in where words came from and when they came into the language and how their meanings have changed over the years. But exploring for the fun of it is very different from looking up words out of your reading because you’re going to get into trouble with your teacher if you don’t.
While teaching fifth grade two years or so after the argument with my sister, I began to think again about reading. The children in my class were supposed to fill out a card—just the title and author and a one-sentence summary—for every book they read. I was not running a competition to see which child could read the most books, a competition that almost always leads to cheating. I just wanted to know what the children were reading. After a while it became clear that many of these very bright kids, from highly literate and even literary backgrounds, read very few books and deeply disliked reading. Why should this be?
At this time I was coming to realize, as I described in my book How Children Fail, that for most children school was a place of danger, and their main business in school was staying out of danger as much as possible. I now began to see also that books were among the most dangerous things in school.
From the very beginning of school we make books and reading a constant source of possible failure and public humiliation. When children are little we make them read aloud, before the teacher and other children, so that we can be sure they “know” all the words they are reading. This means that when they don’t know a word, they are going to make a mistake, right in front of everyone. Instantly they are made to realize that they have done something wrong. Perhaps some of the other children will begin to wave their hands and say, “Ooooh! O-o-o-oh!” Perhaps they will just giggle, or nudge each other, or make a face. Perhaps the teacher will say, “Are you sure?” or ask someone else what he thinks. Or perhaps, if the teacher is kindly, she will just smile a sweet, sad smile—often one of the most painful punishments a child can suffer in school. In any case, the child who has made the mistake knows he has made it, and feels foolish, stupid, and ashamed, just as any of us would in his shoes.
Before long many children associate books and reading with mistakes, real or feared, and penalties and humiliation. This may not seem sensible, but it is natural. Mark Twain once said that a cat that sat on a hot stove lid would never sit on one again—but it would never sit on a cold one either. As true of children as of cat. If they, so to speak, sit on a hot book a few times, if books cause them humiliation and pain, they are likely to decide that the safest thing to do is to leave all books alone. After having taught fifth-grade classes for four years I felt quite sure of this theory. In my next class were many children who had had great trouble with schoolwork, particularly reading. I decided to try at all costs to rid them of their fear and dislike of books, and to get them to read oftener and more adventurously.
One day soon after school had started, I said to them, “Now I’m going to say something about reading that you have probably never heard a teacher say before. I would like you to read a lot of books this year, but I want you to read them only for pleasure. I am not going to ask you questions to find out whether you understand the books or not.
“If you understand enough of a book to enjoy it and want to go on reading it, that’s enough for me. Also I’m not going to ask you what words mean.
“Finally,” I said, “I don’t want you to feel that just because you start a book, you have to finish it. Give an author thirty or forty pages or so to get his story going. Then if you don’t like the characters and don’t care what happens to them, close the book, put it away, and get another. I don’t care whether the books are easy or hard, short or long, as long as you enjoy them. Furthermore I’m putting all this in a letter to your parents, so they won’t feel they have to quiz and heckle you about books at home.”
The children sat stunned and silent. Was this a teacher talking? One girl, who had just come to us from a school where she had had a very hard time, and who proved to be one of the most interesting, lively, and intelligent children I have ever known, looked at me steadily for a long time after I had finished. Then, still looking at me, she said slowly and solemnly, “Mr. Holt, do you really mean that?” I said just as solemnly, “I mean every word of it.”
Apparently she decided to believe me. The first book she read was Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, not a hard book even for most third graders. For a while she read a number of books on this level. Perhaps she was clearing up some confusion about reading that her teachers, in their hurry to get her up to “grade level,” had never given her enough time to clear up. After she had been in the class six weeks or so and we had become good friends, I very tentatively suggested that, since she was a skillful rider and loved horses, she might like to read National Velvet. I made my sell as soft as possible, saying only that it was about a girl who loved and rode horses, and that if she didn’t like it, she could put it back. She tried it, and though she must have found it quite a bit harder than what she had been reading, finished it and liked it very much.
During the spring she really astonished me, however. One day, in one of our many free periods, she was reading at her desk. From a glimpse of the illustrations I thought I knew what the book was. I said to myself, “It can’t be,” and went to take a closer look. Sure enough, she was reading Moby Dick, in the edition with woodcuts by Rockwell Kent. When I came close to her desk she looked up. I said, “Are you really reading that?” She said she was! I said, “Do you like it?” She said, “Oh, yes, it’s neat!” I said, “Don’t you find parts of it rather heavy going?” She answered, “Oh, sure, but I just skip over those parts and go on to the next good part.”
This is exactly what reading should be and in school so seldom is—an exciting, joyous adventure. Find something, dive into it, take the good parts, skip the bad parts, get what you can out of it, go on to something else. How different is our mean-spirited, picky insistence that every child get every last little scrap of “understanding” that can be dug out of a book.