The title of this entry is the first sentence in Chapter 1 of Maryanne Wolf's book Proust and the Squid (2007). This is a very punchy line and I remember first hearing it in Philip Prowse's presentation at IATEFL in 2009.

Ironically enough my first encounter with the sentence was not through reading, but through listening.

Wolf's traces back the development of reading throughout human evolution and analyses how our brains learnt how to read, identifying some of the factors that transformed us into reading animals. However, being able to read does not necessarily transforms an indivudual into a reader. The question that has really been at the back of my mind for quite a long time is 'What makes us readers?' What mysterious force drives a person to spend hours and hours over the pages of a book without any apparent reward and most of the time without any clear objective? What makes a person derive enjoyment from such a quite lonely and sedentary activity? What is perhaps even more interesting, why some people seem apparently immune to the 'reading bug' that infects some of us, compulsive readers? It's a mystery!

Last term I asked my PhD EAP students how many non-academic books they had read in the last 12 months. Two of them answered 1 or 2 -  the other 16 had read none. Some of them had watched one or two of the Harry Potter films and had watched the Lord of the Rings but none had got near a printed version of either. When I ask my ELT trainee teachers the same question, the results are usually not very different and the reason for that is usually 'lack of time'' because, you know,  teachers are always 'very busy people'. Point taken. However, if you really enjoy something you usually find a couple of minutes in your busy schedule to do it, whatever it is, don't you? I strongly suspect that the reason for not having time to read for pleasure is that, for some people, reading is not exactly a pleasant activity.

My own research involves the impact reading and discussing literature may have on English language teachers' professional development. I'm on a quest. I have far more questions than answers! That is why I have decided to use my blog space here at TE to reflect on such questions and share with others some of the things I may find in my readings on the field. I also hope that some of you who are interested in the same issues would engage in a dialogue about them.

 

Wolf, M. (2007) Proust and The Squid. Cambridge: Icon

Comments

Hi Chris! your entry couldn't have reached me at a better time! Yesterday, I was asked to tailor a comprehensive literacy programme at one of the schools where I work - this programme involving, students, teachers, and parents. I've been asking myself the same question, "what makes an individual a reader?" I find it sadly funny (oxymoron intended) to see how many parents and teachers complain about their children/sts spending gazillion hours in front of a computer or TV screen and not reading. When I ask them how many books they've read lately, lack of time is the usual excuse for their not reading. Do they share reading time with their children? No. Do they at least read and comment  on newspaper articles together? No. So why would they expect their children to become readers? I forgot to mention that part of my postgraduate dissertation revolves around the conception of reading as a productive skill through children's picture books. This is giving me quite a lot of insight into a child's physical, psychological and emotional response to / involvement with the reading act. All three aspects are interwoven and cannot be left aside. Things are shaping up quite nicely, but there's a lot of research to do. This year I'll be facilitating reading groups for parents and teachers. Whatever pointers you can give me, I'll be most thankful. And I'll try to share as many impressions as possible with you. If you need me to collect data or carry out some field study, just let me know. All the best and thanks for posting such interesting entries Luciano Camio - Argentina  

You make a really interesting and important point. So why do we put so much emphasis in reading in our language classes and what should be our attitude to students who really don't enjoy reading at all? I've added a post to the TeachingEnglish facebook page so that people there can add their ideas to the discussion. Best, Ann

Hi LucianoThanks a lot for your comments. The point you make about parents complaints rings a bell when we think about teachers. I really do not think that we can convince our students to read outside the classroom if we are not ourselves passionate about reading. I think students are quite smart and smell something fishy when we come up with half-hearted advice to 'read and inprove their vocabulary.'You comments about children's reading made me think about parents who do read to their kids - not only to make them sleep but also to enjoy stories together. I dare say - and I'm quite sure there must be some research in the field  - that those kids tend to grow up to be good readers.In both situations there is the concept of sharing what you read: teachers who read  stories/poems with their students, and parents who do so with their children. It is just quite recently - from the Renaissance, the invention of the print and spread of literacy on - that reading became a silent and solitary activity. Before it, reading was a social activity; something people shared with others. Maybe we have something here...I'd be delighted to know more about your reading group experience with teachers in Argentina and I'd be really thankful for anything you can share. I'll do the same :)Cheers - Chris

 
"We read to find the end, for the story's sake. We read not to reach it, for the sake of the reading itself. We read searchingly, like trackers, oblivious of our surroundings. We read distractedly, skipping pages... We read in gusts of sudden pleasure, without knowing what brought the pleasure along. 'What is the world in this emotion?' asks Rebecca West after reading King Lear. 'What is the bearing of supremely great works of art on my life which makes me feel so glad?' We don't know. We read ignorantly. We read full of prejudice, malignantly. We read generously, making excuses for the text, filling gaps, mending faults. And sometimes, when the stars are kind, we read with an intake of breath, with a shudder, as if a memory had suddenly been rescued from a place deep within us -the recognition of something we never knew was there, or of something which we vaguely felt as a flicker or a shadow, whose ghostly form rises and passes back into us before we can see what it is."
Manguel, Alberto (1996). A History of Reading. New York: Viking
 

In my situation where English becomes the second language it doubles the trouble students face. First making students read is quite a challenge itself once they are at it,  it is only for pleasure purpose. Its not the time factor that is a problem the problem is the interest level and the effort reading requires to make it meaningful.

Hi Luciano, Fatima and AllThanks a lot for this quote Luciano. I think Manguel puts it in a very poetic way the fact  we approach reading in different ways depending on a number of factors. We do not read different texts in the same manner, and even when we do read the same type of texts, our ways of reading them are influenced by a series of other factors, such as the way we are feeling, the other thoughts we have in our minds and the previous knowledge we bring to the texts. Perhaps, one of our mistakes as teachers is to think that once we give our students the right reading strategies (skimming, scanning, summarising, etc) reading will cater for itself - once you have the skills, reading will proceed smoothly. In my experience, nothing could be further from that. Reading strategies do help, but they alone do not surfice. There must be something else there to drive us.Fatima, very rightly in my opinion, mentions that maybe time is not the big issue after all, but the effort that reading requires. I think there are a number of gaps that might transform the reading in a very laborious effort and perhaps kills the enjoyment of reading. It is not only the language gap (lexis, sentence structures) that can make processing the text difficult, but also the cultural gap, the lack of the same frame of references that informed the author. I always remember Prof. David Crystal's (2002) work on Shakespeare. According to him, only 5% of Shakespeare's words have a completely different meaning from the meanings the same words have nowadays. What may make reading Shakespeare particularly challenging for 21st century readers is the lack of knowledge of the sources that inspired him, for instance, the Greek and the Biblical references.What are the implications of such considerations? I would say that:1. Teachers should realise that we can teach reading strategies, but we cannot teach 'reading' per se - this is something that students have to 'discover' and develop themselves. We can only facilitate that.2. Choosing and proposing texts at the 'right' level can be crucial. Texts should be easy enough to give students the sense that they can do it and, at the same time, be challenging so that there is something to fight for and to be gained, either in terms of enjoyment, knowledge and/or language achievement.Looking forward to your comments :)Chris Crystal, C and B. Crystal (2002) Shakespeare's Words. London: Penguin. 

Hi Chris and AllThanks a lot for sharing your professional experience and insightful ideas in so many Teaching English corners...I have enjoyed reading the colleagues' posts above. I am not adding anything new, just reacting in my personal way and drawing from my own experience.Authentic reading for pleasure does not take into account "time", in my view. We always attempt to seek the most immediate chance to sit and feel that pleasure, devouring pages in a perfect admiration towards the content. Moreover, we feel we are not alone..., I think. The author's presence through the stories told invites us to participate in those experiences, to some extent...I agree on what you have mentioned, Chris: "... reading was a social activity; something people shared with others." It is this aspect that needs to be extended these days... with TV and digital reads apparently taking over. Discussing literature in a group can often lead to other discoveries giving way to further reads. Please,let me tell you that in a very recent poll presented by the BBC(asking viewers whether they would consider to acquire a"kindle" or to stuck to a printed book), the largest percentage was by far for the latter!You are right. In the ELT classroom students need to perceive/"smell something fishy"... Once their teacher shares with them the authentic passion for improving reading for pleasure, interacting with them and gradually suggesting some reads according to their learning level and interests, half way is achieved so as to reach what you have expressed so well: "... enjoyment, knowledge and/or language achievement."All the best,Maria

Dear readers, I would like to join you in this debate, for I´m one of the people who claim to be a reader. The reading for pleasure activity is quite a strange one. The sensation of going trough page books, spend your time there sounds difficullty to understand and explain, even the sense of achievement one gets after reading a book and found out more about characters and plots is not easy to understand, but it´s true, in my point of view, that reading changes the way we look at the world we live in in general. This happens (I suspect) because writers often write about issues that have to do with our true human environment, tensions, feelings and challenges, sometimes the reader finds his own picture or of a someone else behaviour, and also allow us to visit imaginary places that we start to think of only when they come on pages of a book.I think the book, in the form of novel or story, is one of the greatest inventions, it´s pleasant to hold it in our hands, put it in the armpit and more important is to enjoy and understand it. I sometimes read in the train and buses, I never forgave myself for the days I took a train or bus without a book for reading. One always find time for doing what brings pleasure. As for the lack of reading for pleasure habit I´ll quote Mia Couto, a proeminent mozambican writer, he shared these thought with public in 2009.    "By using lack of time as an excuse for not reading people only let it be known that they prefer to do something else instead of reading, for “people choose what is easier for them to do, for example, watching television."  “But, we know that people need to read and there´s  only one valid argument  that stimulates reading habit, it consists in promoting the idea that we read only for pleasure”.    “It is necessary to do some investment in oral story telling, which is a way of passing knowledge which already exist even before reading. People have to cultivate the habit of story telling.”  Mia Couto disagrees with people who claim that they do not buy books because books are expensive, arguing that this may be half true, but it is also true that many people “rolling in money” do not buy books. “The bookshops have been empty places while other kinds of shops have been full”.He also disagrees with the myth saying that a writer is the only one who has to write well by saying that writing is not a concern only for writers, “doctors, lawyers, engineers and other professionals have to know how to write well” he also added that “we write well when the ideas and the thinking behind the writing is ours” He encourages the youth to read and write in any language they can “Write in any language that you can.” “Poverty is lack of our own thoughts, critical thinking” he added. “Language is not a natural gift, we choose and we are chosen by it” Tanguene

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