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Joel BelzVoices Joel Belz

Hooked on books

Forget the reading technique and focus on the stories

It isn't every day-and it's probably good that it isn't-that a WORLD subscriber e-mails me to say, "I just read your column and want to come and talk with you about it." But a fellow from Lockhart, Texas, wrote me just such a note after reading my Feb. 4 piece about eighth-grade tests in Iowa's public schools in 1924. He was so passionate in his response that we ended up having dinner together this past weekend here in Asheville. Now I want to spread a bit of his passion.

My new friend, whom I will call Henry because that's his real name, wants children to read more. And he wants them to love to read. He thinks bad reading habits today, and bad methods of teaching reading, are the main reasons that today's high-school graduates and even many college students would struggle with a test that was typical for rural eighth-graders some 80 years ago.

Neither Henry nor I is a trained expert in the subject of reading, or how reading ought to be taught. But we agree that there are some common-sense ideas that ought to be stressed in today's culture of television, videos, DVDs, games, and interactive internet activities that on their face seem so much more fun than books.

Henry's father died when Henry was only 6. So when he stresses the need for dads to read with their kids, he is talking about something he himself largely missed. He doesn't want others to live with the same gap. "Are you willing to take 30 minutes a day to sit and read with and to your children?" he asks-with remarkably little attention to technique.

Indeed, he thinks he can summarize his technique in five minutes or less. It consists of picking up virtually any reading material that might be interesting to the child, pointing to specific words, asking the child to say the words that he or she knows, and then filling in the others. "Little by little, and then faster than you think," says Henry, "a child is able to read a whole paragraph. And the focus is totally on the content, not on how the process is happening."

But my point here is most emphatically not to direct you to some new method or system for teaching the art of reading. The debates between the devotees of phonics (which is how I first learned to read) and the disciples of the whole-word approach (which is also how all of us sooner or later learn to read) are legendary. There are whole graduate schools of education devoted to particular approaches and techniques. I have no interest here in pursuing any of that.

What I do like about Henry's approach is his focus on helping children find joy and delight in the content of their reading rather than in the process. What if it were the stories that were legendary rather than the debates among the experts?

And I am just simplistic enough (and congenitally skeptical about the experts) to believe there are great rewards waiting for the dads and granddads who will take that 30 minutes a day to sit down and read with a few of the most important kids in the world. For those who consider that a sexist challenge, let me welcome moms and grandmas to the enterprise. I started with the dads and granddads only because we are the ones who have most neglected our duty on this front over the last generation or two.

For me, it's more than intuition. I remember my own dad reading to-and with-us from Pilgrim's Progress, Foxe's Book of Martyrs, the King James Bible, and even The Wall Street Journal. Because I had seven brothers and sisters, I honestly don't remember sitting on his lap. What I do remember is the impact both words and ideas had on us all. And I remember it all as great fun.

And I appreciate a busy dad who is so passionate about this that he came last week all the way from Lockhart, Texas, to help me remind you of one of the most critical things any of us can do to lay sound foundations for the next generation.