“Those who will not read have no advantage over those who cannot read.” This slogan hangs on the bulletin board next to my desk as a reminder to my students. Many of them are shocked to hear me suggest that reading something like Sports Illustrated is as good for the brain’s “reading muscle,” as I will unscientifically refer to it in this article, as is reading, say, The Grapes of Wrath. Now, I’m not suggesting that an article about Peyton Manning has the same literary “merit” as Steinbeck’s masterpiece, but rather that simply exercising this muscle is essential for students, particularly as the College Board prepares to trot out a ramped-up SAT Reading Section beginning this coming March. To oversimplify, the basic act of reading will lead to reading success. I know this idea is not exactly an atom-splitter, but I think too often we forget about the benefits of reading and how, with every word, we are improving our vocabularies, gaining a better understanding of the structure of writing, learning new stuff and, of course, giving our reading muscle a workout.
If you are an athlete (good for you- I can’t relate), you know the value of preparation, even when it’s frigid outside or ungodly early in the morning when even the rooster isn’t awake yet. You endure the pain of training because you know that somewhere down the line, there will be a payoff. Similarly, students who are willing to read things (any things) are more likely to eventually see marked improvement on tests like the new SAT and the current ACT. The obstacle, though, as recent studies have suggested, is that “few adolescents chose to read on their own” (Strommen & Mates, 2004). Not surprisingly, “when some students judge reading and literacy activities to be unrewarding, too difficult, or not worth the effort because they are peripheral to their interests and needs, they can become nonreaders (Strommen & Mates, 2004) or aliterate adolescents (Alvermann, 2003) who are capable of reading but choose not to do so.” The realization that there do, in fact, exist sources and publications that feature readings that are central to students’ interests may help combat this apathy before it leads to reading muscle atrophy.
So how do we keep the muscle in shape amidst the chaos of high school? I truly believe that many of my students have more on their plates than do I, a certified “adult,” so I don’t mean to make it sound like they can just drop everything and read. However, I think they would be surprised to realize just how many opportunities there are to painlessly exercise this muscle. I have, like many of us, succumbed to the distractions of social media. The thing is, though, that I find myself using these platforms more for reading than for looking at pictures of distant acquaintances’ dinners (#yum). An act as simple as following or liking a publication of interest can lead to literally hundreds of opportunities to “workout.” I use Facebook to follow the Atlantic Monthly, a general-interest magazine which supplies many digestible articles on all different subjects. For students with more specific interests, there’s Deadspin, which is great for the sports fanatic, or Buzzfeed, which is made for the pop culture guru, to name a few. With all of these exercise opportunities literally at our fingertips, we can seamlessly make the workout a part of daily life. You’d be amazed at how many “vocab” words you can uncover in an innocent-looking article. A 2007 Sports Illustrated piece about Barry Bonds and Hank Aaron yielded the words “rivulets,” “accoutrements,” “adamant,” “immutability,” “consummate,” “posterity,” “encomium,” “ethos,” “elegiac,” “pantheon,” “apropos,” “duress,” “wistfully,” “chagrined,” and “ambiguous,” among others. You can almost feel your vocabulary expanding just hearing about it.
A student who neglects the reading muscle may find the new 65 minute, 52-question SAT Reading Test a little daunting. Students who are thinking they can sidestep this by taking the ACT may be surprised to find an intense and fast-moving reading portion. In one of the College Board’s first new SAT practice tests, students will find a passage by Charlotte Bronte from 1857, immediately followed by one concerning the ethics of economics, then a double passage about brain rewiring. Now, it’s no secret that the SAT reading passages have really never been all that interesting, however this new version will require even more patience, persistence, and stamina. So how can you build this muscle that maybe you haven’t been using much lately? The key is to start small and don’t fear the reading. A light workout can be the stepping stone to reading anxiety becoming reading confidence. A conditioned muscle doesn’t deflate when it encounters an ACT passage about the prairie turnip (and yes, there is one about the prairie turnip). It doesn’t quiver when the SAT drops a 90-line excerpt from Pride and Prejudice. A well-trained muscle flexes its ability and remains rock-hard and confident no matter the length or the subject matter of the passage. It’s basically the dude showing off his “guns” at the beach but in a much, much less obnoxious way, and with results that will last a lifetime, not just a summer.
Written by Phil Lane