What’s Wrong With Simply Teaching Reading as Reading?

For some reason, educators seem to be obsessed with changing reading into something more (dare I say) “exciting” for children. According to this New York Times article, comic book ???academies’ are sprouting up all over the place. The idea here is a relatively simple one. Your kids don’t like ???real’ literature? Shove the newest issue of Amazing Spider-Man in his hands and, Shazam!, he’ll embrace the Riverside Shakespeare in no time.

What a load of crap.

Let me back up a minute. I have been collecting comic books since I was ten years old. I’m 42 now, so that’s thousands and thousands of these things littering my garage, my study, and by basement (much to my wife’s chagrin). I worked as an intern at Fantagraphics Books, the proud publisher of literary comics like Love and Rockets, straight out of college. I carry the entire Marvel and DC histories in my head. I also have a son who struggled with reading when he was younger and now keeps his head buried in Japanese manga like Shonen Jump, Death Note, and the like. Some of my best friends are comic book nerds. I do understand the appeal of this art form, but it should be celebrated for what it is, not what we hope it will be.

Let’s be real. The act of reading itself is unnatural and can be very hard work. You have to understand strange markings called the alphabet. You then have to continue to understand those strange markings when they are jumbled around into words, sentences, and paragraphs. On top of that, you are expected to garner information or emotion from what you have read. Then, you are expected to decipher, understand, and garner all at an acceptable rate or you will be labeled as slow. Reading comic books makes the process a little easier. What I don’t buy is the literacy leap. Reading the exploits of Batman or Wonder Woman isn’t going to make you want to devour War and Peace, any more than watching Law and Order puts you any closer to a homicide detective’s badge, or playing Guitar Hero 3 will lead you to a career as a classical guitarist. It might happen, sure, but one shouldn’t be a precursor to the other.

We need to reevaluate what we want for our children from reading. We say we want children to read, but we really want more than that. What we want is for children to slow down, study a text, bring their impressions and ideas to what they read, learn the importance of the canon, and find meaning in the written word. We want them to love reading. For most kids, that’s not going to happen. A more realistic and necessary approach would be to teach kids (and the adults in charge) to slow down enough to think through ideas, to draw valid conclusion based on valid information. Reading should be a part of that. Comics should be a part of that. Music, email, blogs, instant messenger, tv shows, video games, movies, and other bits of pop culture should be a part of that. When we start teaching thinking, then we will be teaching a type of literacy that’s more important than a love of reading.