Friday, November 29, 2013

How Teaching Reading Makes Me a Better Writer

 I'm fortunate to work in a field where I get to talk about reading. Every day. It's usually around ages 9-11 when reading really clicks for most kids, and for the first time they discover the magic of disappearing into another world, another skin, and living somewhere else without ever having to get off the couch. And every year, I get to see it unfold, again and again. I've got a front-row seat while kids disappear before my eyes, falling into books within minutes, emerging only to gasp or laugh out loud into a silent room filled with readers. Often I have to moderate arguments over which books should be read in what order, which books are must-reads and which ones deserve to be read again. These are conversations I have among my own friends - why should it be any different for children?

We can all remember that teacher who killed the love of reading, methodically stomping out any desire to pick up a book on our own. Mandatory book reports and mind-numbing summaries, due like clockwork every 2-4 weeks. Cereal boxes with our character traits, summaries, and fake reviews - intended to make reading fun! and interesting! but instead making them the impetus for ferocious family arguments, usually on Sunday evenings around bedtime. And let's not forget the basal readers, giving us only a small piece of a story and then asking 5-10 mostly literal questions to see whether we were able to stay awake to the very end.

I don't teach reading like that, and luckily very few of my colleagues do either. I'm in the business of growing adult readers, and in order to do that, everything I do as a reader must become explicit. What do I think about when I read? How do I interact with the story, and with others who have also read it? Reading is a social activity, not intended to be done in isolation. Books are meant to be discussed, not summarized. After all, book club members don't sit around re-telling the events of a story to each other, they talk about how that story made them feel, which characters they loved, and which characters they loved to hate. These are the things I show my readers, and every year they fall in love with reading in ways that never fail to thrill me.

So how does this make me a better writer? By shining the light on what makes the reading experience one we keep returning to, over and over again. We think about theme. We think about author's purpose. We think about how the story, characters, and setting impact us and how we choose to live our lives. We lift lines we love, simply because they're so beautifully rendered. We run to the computer and Google events and people from the book to discover how much of it was true, or skip ahead to the Author's Note to see what really happened. We ask ourselves, "What was this book really about? What am I still wondering?" and "How has this book changed the way I live my life?" These are the questions I want students thinking about, and these are the questions I strive to generate when I write.

Every year, I get to study and deconstruct the works of incredibly gifted writers. Patricia MacLachlan. Pam Muñoz Ryan. Katherine Applegate. Jerry Spinelli. Ralph Fletcher. Phillip Pullman. Roald Dahl. Even though I write fiction for adults, there is so much to be learned from how these authors have manipulated plot, built tension, and developed characters. While I'm teaching students to read with agency, with urgency, to grow theories about a character's motivations, to analyze how secondary characters might influence the choices our main characters make, or how a character's problems are transforming into themes, I'm constantly applying these ideas to my own work. I end my days energized by the dialogue of eleven-year-olds.

Without exception, the best writers in my class are voracious readers. They have an ear for how it's supposed to sound, and they're able to apply techniques in sophisticated ways. Excellent writing grows first and foremost from reading quality literature. "What have you read that's like what you're trying to write?" is a question I ask first, before anything else. I ask it of my students, and I ask it of myself.

This is an old revelation. You can throw a brick and hit at least seven people who have already written about the importance of reading if you hope to become a writer. Just this week, I've read four books for pleasure, and it's only Friday. I expect to read at least one more before heading back to work on Monday. There's no mystery in the reading/writing connection. But there's something magical about deconstructing an experience I love in such a transparent way, and watching children transform into lifelong readers because of it. 

I'm a veteran of creative writing courses. All of these concepts have been covered in various ways among the classes I've taken. But when we teach something to others, our mastery of it skyrockets from 70% to 96%. I'm in no way considering myself a master. But I'd be a fool not to take advantage of a situation that helps me view my writing as others will hopefully view a reader who wants nothing more than to fall into a really good story.


  1. Hi Julia, thanks for visiting me at The Debutante Ball today. I love virtually meeting new people.

    This interests me: But when we teach something to others, our mastery of it skyrockets from 70% to 96%

    I've never been a teacher, but a novelist/teacher buddy has said the same thing. And who knows? I might find myself teaching workshops in the future.

    1. Hi Lisa, thanks for stopping by! Yes, the statistics are fascinating and explain why I'm so very proficient at order of operations.

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