Developing Independent Reading Skills

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One of the essentials of a classical education is its emphasis on quality reading skills.  Commonly in the past, boys and girls were taught to listen, but they were rarely taught to read.  In certain old cultures such as Greece and Rome, this was not a deficiency: those cultures were largely agrarian or militaristic, and what little academic knowledge might be taught came in the form of poetry and music, handed down orally by minstrels, musicians, poets, and playwrights.  Nothing else was needed.  Desk-work and "quiet" reading were rare, and they were often thought strange.

Today, our modern technological culture is far different.  College and graduate degrees are increasingly indispensable for even the most moderate of careers and incomes, and those degrees require wide-ranging study, high proficiency in reading, and (most importantly) independent learning.  The sea of knowledge in the 21st-century is vast, and the need for quick, thoughtful self-learners has never been higher.  And the gateway to self-learning has always been rigorous and inflexible: high-quality independent reading ability.

What is an independent reader?  It is a student who can take a book -- whether in Kindergarten or college -- and grapple with its content on his own.  An independent reader is not someone who is being read to.

When a student reads independently, a few unique developmental processes are triggered in the brain.  First, independent reading requires visual focus, which in turn develops concentration skills.  The reader cannot let his eyes wander as he can when simply listening to a story.  Second, independent reading triggers and develops problem-solving skills.  In younger readers, this comes in the form of decoding new words and connecting them conceptually with the real world.  More advanced readers begin recognizing syntax, the structure of style, and the anatomy of a written argument, all of which subconsciously enrich the reader's own writing voice.  Third, independent reading develops a love of words as words, as well as the knowledge that words fitly chosen are "like apples of gold in a setting of silver" (Prov. 25:11).  And last, independent readers become better speakers.  Not only do they develop a knowledge of beautiful writing through personal engagement with texts, but that knowledge of good writing naturally translates into a basic knowledge of good speech.

So continue to read to your children (of all ages) regularly.  Read-alouds from parents are a wonderful (and necessary) way to strengthen relationships, develop listening skills, and build imaginations.  Read-alouds are also key for a child to learn pronunciation, the rich textures of elocution, and the music of words.  But let's also remember that reading aloud is no substitute for the crucial skill of independent reading.  A child learns rich stories and develops good listening skills when he is read to, but he is not actively learning how to read independently.  He is not becoming a more advanced independent reader.  Regular listening produces focused listeners, but only regular independent reading produces good readers.  Give your children both, but do not rob them of one.