Reading widely and often used to be the buzz phrase in the report card comments I used to write for my students. I don't believe the phrase ever inspired my students to bouts of inspired and wide reading.
I thought I'd use this blog post to explain why I recommend wide reading and its effects on the formation of new neural pathways in the brain. One of the drivers for academic success is reading often and widely. I know this to be true because reading widely is what helped me to become a better writer. I was never an academically gifted student. I was average in literacy and below average in numeracy. Numeracy is a skill set I have never mastered; however, literacy I did and have. I've also taught enough intelligent students to note that the skill set they relied on was their ability to read, and their tendency to read widely. Intelligent students who are wise to the world around them, have read frequently a range of fiction and non-fiction texts. But why is wide reading so beneficial? Reading saturates the brain with countless words, phrases, and descriptions that can inspire the host's mind long after they've finished reading.
It is, however, not enough to read only fiction. Students need to read widely. Non-fiction is the right choice, but students should not restrict themselves to only books. A magazine or a newspaper is an equal right choice, and more importantly, print media offers a variety of text types for our budding student writers. Depending on the student's ability, my go-to magazine choice to get kids reading out of their comfort zone is the Sydney Morning Heralds Saturday Magazine insert The Good Weekend. If students regularly read, at least weekly, exposes good readers to excellent writing. For teenagers who don't usually select a newspaper to read, The Good Weekend is ideal for getting them started. Like anything, though, students need to be consistent and persistent. By reading the magazine consistently over time, for example, at least a few months, they will adjust their interests. They will grow to enjoy different articles and topics covered by the magazine. I started with The Good Weekend magazine in 1994. I was 17. For me, reading that magazine was a game-changer because I learned how to write well. I went from a D level student to an A level student by reading widely and mimicking the formal language structure that I'd learned through reading the Herald's magazine insert.
The second non-fiction magazine I recommend is either New Scientist or Popular Science. Most high school libraries subscribe to either one or both of these magazines. Firstly, both texts are a great read, and secondly, the journalists who compose the articles adopt informative and persuasive tones in equal measure for their audience. For secondary students, most of the texts they write for grades need to be either informative or persuasive and sometimes both. I'm realistic to know that kids are not going to be cognitively aware of why or what they can glean from reading this kind of text. Their visual brain nonetheless does and absorbs the combination of text and colourful images that persuade them of a particular scientific discovery or theory's merits. I've used magazines such as these in the classroom multiple times. When students are exposed to a range of short texts over an extended period, their knowledge of the topic improves their understanding of persuasive or informative language.
To reiterate, the language used in the three different texts mentioned above, is a combination of informative and formal, mimicking perfectly what Syllabi's around the country are imploring our students to do. Science is a compulsory subject to the end of Year 10, and from Year 11, Science subjects diversify and specialise in multiple different pathways. Reading widely from Year 7 exposes student intellectual development to more than just the humanities, which can be over-represented. I am certainly not suggesting for one minute that the humanities shouldn't be studied at the present level. Still, wide reading encourages diversity, and diversity contributes to a student's sense of understanding in language and how it can be used. More extensive reading builds neural pathways to new information and new ideas drawn from the brain when needed in multiple different ways. The young and developing brain stores the structure of sentences and paragraphs formalizes language knowledge and sets the seeds of the form of a student's central thesis or the creative idea.
As adults, we read to learn, and we read for pleasure. We also don't realise how often we read something interesting or compelling and then draw on that information to retell to others or in the form of an interesting anecdote for others to hear. We do it regularly and don't think about why we retain information and use it in the future. We crave reading about new things but don't question why we thirst for that knowledge. This skill is what I want P2W students to realise. We read widely to learn; we read widely to add to our brain's unlimited brain stores, we read so we can draw on it later. We read wide often because we want to and that's also what I want students to do, to perform simple acts like reading lots of different texts, so it becomes part of their routine.
In part 2 of this comprehensive reading theme, I will talk about readers who struggle and train their brains to decode different text types.