As a teacher you want your students to read. Not just what you assign them in class, but novels that they pick up by themselves after school, in the summer and when their schooling is finished completely. Forcing a traditional literary canon on students while they develop their reading skills and habits and disregarding or belittling the potential of other sources of reading will not create lifelong readers.
Reading is an acquired skill. Like any such skill it requires gradual steps to attain your full potential. For example in baseball you would begin by teaching the child the basic rules of hitting the ball and running the bases. Then perhaps you would move them to techniques of hitting high balls, grounders, etc (on purpose as opposed to just being able to hit the ball at all). Finally the child would move through softball, fast-pitch softball, hardball and maybe if he or she was very skilled after all the years of practice and had particular natural ability they would move on to a major league. We would never consider giving a child the rules, letting them run through a few softball games and then tossing them into the minor leagues. Yet when we teach children to read we go from the alphabet, to sounding out "run spot, run," and then toss them into middle school and expect them to play hardball with the literary canon and actually enjoy it.
The amount of reading that a student does for fun outside of classroom assignments drops drastically from the beginning years of school to the end of high school. In a survey done by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, Department of Health and Human Services in 1997, 45 percent of students in fourth grade reported reading for fun at least once a day while for twelfth graders this figure dropped to 24 percent. The figures remain consistent even as you divide the groups by gender, race or type of school (http://aspe.os.dhhs.gov/hsp/97trends/ea3-1b.htm). Obviously something is happening to discourage out-of-school reading. When comments such as "I have to reserve my reading time for real literature" (Hoffman 216) and "you'll see how hard it is to communicate what sets enduring art apart from airport books" (Hoffman 216) are made by a respected author and teacher it becomes apparent where the roots of these statistics lie.
There is so much that can be learned from reading, as any bookworm knows. Reading can help improve vocabulary and grammar simply because a reader sees words and correct grammar used over and over again, just as one example. Yet these lessons are not restricted to the canon. Anyone who has spent any time in an English classroom, either as teacher or student, knows that books from the traditional canon inevitably bring groans and complaints from students. These texts usually use language and structure that is simply too lofty, with meanings so intricately buried in hundreds of pages that most middle and high school aged children are bored, terrified or frustrated away from them. While a practiced reader would enjoy the challenge of these classics, a developing student can be turned away from reading all together. "If we teach children and young adults to read without instilling in them the desire to read, all we have done is in vain" (Lesesne 47). Thus as educators we must instill the habit of reading into our students with other forms of literature.
A number of approaches can be taken to encourage reading habits in children. The most important realization to be reached, though, is that as an educator you are really the only one the student can look to as a role model and source of encouragement in the reading department. There is no guarantee that children will see their parents reading or even get any encouragement to read from them. Therefore it is foremost in your duty to display a pattern that your students can imitate. To be more direct, let your students see you reading and enjoying it! Talk to your students about books you like, try reading books they like, suggest books you think they might like and don't be afraid to try anything. If by your example a student becomes a voracious enough reader to exhaust their "Baby-sitter's Club" books perhaps the next novel they pick up will be something by Bronte or Poe.
Another thing to consider when weighing Literature against "airport books" (Hoffman 216), is what most children do these days outside of school for fun. With competition such as video games, computers, TV's, movies and CD's it's quite an accomplishment to get a kid to actually read anything. You must essentially assume that reading for fun will not happen beyond your classroom walls. Therefore consider a free reading period or time in which you tantalize children with books that will actually catch and hold their attention. If a child decides to read the latest "Goosebumps" book more power to him or her! The fact that they are practicing the skill of reading will expand the possibilities that someday they will choose to tackle Shakespeare.
These sort of situations force certain mindsets onto you as a teacher. Stated ideally by Lesesne, a teacher must believe "that students are capable of developing taste and skills using their own reading materials," must know "books and students interests in reading materials," must be "committed to reading books students like to read and recommend and want to talk about," must create "a climate for reading in the classroom," and must work "unobtrusively for growth in taste, skill, and level of reading" (48). What this says is have an open mind and be optimistic. Use your position as a teacher to enrich your students lives with words instead of forcing them.
The strongest voices in support of imposing the traditional literary canon on young students continually crow about the content of these artistic novels versus the supposed drivel contained in popular novels or young adult literature. This scenario falls into the same category as censorship trials. Thankfully and frighteningly most of these voices are making such judgment calls without ever having read a young adult or popular novel, just as many censored books are removed without their enemies ever reading more then the back cover's summary. If these well-meaning defenders of children would take the time to examine other novels they would find surprising similarities to their beloved canon.
Fiction enjoyed by children is usually short. It often contains a young protagonist from who's point of view the story is told. Most often the story is direct, open and concise. All of these characteristics could be deemed as shallow forms of writing. A deeper look, though, reveals the same undercurrents apparent in great literature. There are structural conventions. No matter how terrible an author may seem, to get published he or she must have some sort of proficiency at writing. The fiction addresses current issues and lifestyles in most cases, just as our canonical literature addressed these things from its time. The protagonists tend to be "highly independent in thought, action, and conflict resolution" and reap "the consequences of their actions and decisions" (Small 41). While this is not necessarily a norm in the canon literature, it does display a high level of character development and a realistic and educational character. By such closer examinations it becomes apparent that what many people consider literature of lesser quality is simply a stepping stone to more complicated literary texts. What one learns playing softball can be applied in hardball and what one learns in reading youthful literature can be applied in Shakespeare.
It is no longer possible for today's educators to retain their snobbish perch of a scholar and force "real literature" into students' heads (Hoffman 216). With the growing realization that reading is a skill and habit it is essential that we as teachers open our minds to all available texts to encourage children's minds to grow and take hold of reading in whatever way will make them never let go. All the damage done in the past, all the horror stories passed down from brother to sister about that terrible book The Red Badge of Courage must be erased with careful nurturing of anything that will develop reading skills and habits. Perhaps then someday the canon can be approached again and seen through fresh and youthful eyes that have been properly allowed to grow in the art of reading before being set among the greatest labyrinth of texts.
Hoffman, Marvin. Chasing Hellhounds : a Teacher Learns From His Students. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 1996.
Lesesne, Teri S. "Developing Lifetime Readers: Suggestions from Fifty Years of Research." Young Adult Literature A Contemporary Reader. comp. Copeland, Dr. Jeffrey S. Needham Heights, MA: Pearson Education, 1997. 47-50.
"Reading Habits of Children and Youth." Trends in the Well-being of America's Children and Youth, 1997 Edition. (no date): n. pag. Online. Netscape. 26 April 2001. http://aspe.os.dhhs.gov/hsp/97trends/ea3-1b.htm
Small, Robert C. "The Literary Value of the Young Adult Novel." Young Adult Literature A Contemporary Reader. comp. Copeland, Dr. Jeffrey S. Needham Heights, MA: Pearson Education, 1997. 39-42.