John Holt: “How Teachers Make Children Hate Reading”

While casting about for short stories and essays to use with the Street Humanities group, I came across John Holt’s 1967 essay “How Teachers Make Children Hate Reading.”* It struck me as a very modern and sadly underused approach to teaching English. The man was ahead of his time!

Holt, a Grade Five teacher, came to an epiphany about why so many of his students all seemed to dislike reading: they associated it with humiliation and unpleasant grilling, because of the conventional teaching methods he and other teachers had been using. So he decided to try a brand new approach, to get the students to associate books and reading with pleasure:

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.

I think this is one reason I’m so excited about doing the short story readings with the Street Humanities program. We get to just read, discuss and enjoy literature–make it that “exciting, joyous adventure.” No grades, no tests, no lectures. I still struggle with how to encourage enjoyment of reading within the strictures of my Provincial Level lit class–I’ve got to provide grades, and they want and need the credits. I think it’s doable, but it requires careful thought. More on that as the semester progresses. But for now–I need to remember to encourage the joy in their reading!

*from The Norton Reader: An Anthology of Nonfiction, 13th ed.

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