What Books Should Kids Read?

The parents of my students sometimes approach me with looks of concern. They are worried, they say, about the books the kids are reading.

“He doesn’t read ‘good books.’ He just wants to read science fiction.”

My response is always the same: “Great! That’s an excellent way for him to improve his reading ability.”

That’s right: it’s fine — in fact, excellent — for kids to read popular literature. Science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, biographies of athletes and movie stars — any of these genres will improve a student’s reading ability.

Reading such literature is analogous to informal play in recess or at the park. At such times, kids aren’t working on their foul shots or learning the playbook. They aren’t putting themselves through exhausting workout sessions to become champion runners or swimmers. But they are exercising, making friends, resolving conflicts, and, most importantly, having fun.

What recess does for the body, informal reading does for the mind. It does so by exposing children to new ideas, or by introducing them to heroes that they can emulate and villains that they can condemn. And of course, it strengthens their reading comprehension in several ways.

First, kids do learn college-level vocabulary words from popular fiction. Here’s a list of vocab words from the first page (!) of a popular fantasy novel from the 1970’s:

  • metamorphose
  • mirth
  • abate
  • malice
  • pretensions
  • percolate
  • omen
  • dire

If your seventh-grader doesn’t know these words, he can benefit from reading even mediocre fantasy or sci-fi.

Second, reading popular fiction gives kids practice with the basic act of reading. Reading even simple words is a surprisingly complex task of turning printed material into thought. When kids read slowly and awkwardly, it’s usually because they simply haven’t logged enough hours of this work. A second-grader might read a chapter from Little House in the Big Woods in fifteen minutes; a fifth grader will probably read it in five. It’s not because the fifth-grader has learned more words, as the vocabulary is exactly the same; it’s because the fifth grader has had three more years to practice reading the easy words that the book is made of.

Third, regular reading, even of popular literature, exposes readers to more idioms. Idioms don’t usually appear in lists of advanced vocabulary words, but they are important elements of literature, journal articles, and even textbooks. The only way to learn them is to read a lot, either decoding their meanings from context or looking them up in a dictionary. The more students read, even of popular fiction, the more idioms they will learn.

Fourth: Rest. Many coaches describe rest as the most important component of training. Physical rest gives tired muscles a chance to heal and rebuild themselves stronger. Mental rest does the same for the tired mind. One of the great pleasures of reading is withdrawing from homework, sports practice, and gossip to rest the mind with a simple story. From the comfort of a sofa, one can watch, for the thousandth time, as the hero overcomes adversity and collects a reward. After the kingdom has returned to peace, perhaps the mind will generate new ideas for solving that hard geometry problem.

When your son puts down the video game console and goes outside, do you ask “What game is he playing with that ball?” No; you’re just happy that he’s getting fresh air and exercise. Likewise, if your daughter has put down her iPad and picked up a book, don’t start fretting about the genre.

Many famous writers have said the same. Samuel Johnson — who knew enough to single-handedly write the first systematic English dictionary — pointed out that when we read what we dislike, we spend half our energy forcing ourselves to concentrate. That is why, he said, “A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good.”

So let your children continue to check out fantasy novels, sci-fi novels, mysteries, and biographies from the library. Their teachers will probably thank you. Sooner or later, your kids will too.

Download my free ebook: Twelve Ways to Improve Your Reading. Learn more vocabulary words. Comprehend difficult passages. Retain more information. Learn the habits of readers in the top 1%.

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