Why reading novels in school isn't a waste of time.

Ann Althouse asks why schools should bother having kids read fiction:

And why does reading even need to be a separate subject from history in school? Give them history texts and teach reading from them. Science books too. Leave the storybooks for pleasure reading outside of school. They will be easier reading, and with well-developed reading skills, kids should feel pleasure curling up with a novel at home. But even if they don't, why should any kind of a premium be placed on an interest in reading novels? It's not tied to economic success in life and needn't be inculcated any more than an interest in watching movies or listening to popular music. Leave kids alone to find out out what recreational activities enrich and satisfy them. Some may want to dance or play music or paint. Just because teachers tend to be the kind of people who love novels does not mean that this choice ought to be imposed on young people via compulsory education. Teach them about history, science, law, logic -- something academic and substantive -- and leave the fictional material for after hours.

Now, I have someplace to be in an hour (actually two places I'm supposed to be, but set that problem aside). However, seeing as how I taught "Philosophy and Literature" this term and I seem to have some pre-existing views on the stuff a good education can and should deliver, I'm going to shoot from the hip and see how many reasons I can enumerate for getting kids to read fiction in school:

  1. Recreational reading is an acquired taste. It doesn't just happen. It has to be one of the live options with which kids are presented if there is to be a chance of them picking it up. If their parents read for fun (and do so visibly -- when the kids are still awake), that gives the option some exposure, but not every kid has parents who read for fun.
  2. Taking away the "fun" reading may make the reading that's left seem like work. And kids love work, boy howdy! Except that they don't, so sugar-coating the work of becoming fluent readers by throwing interesting characters and plots into the reading material can make the difference between a happy class and a vengeful class.
  3. Science and history books don't build the same vocabulary that works of fiction do. I'm happy to have students build their science and history vocabularies too, but that's not all there is. If we want to get really utilitarian about it, reading novels when you're younger probably leads to a better SAT verbal score when you're older.
  4. Making the school curriculum a simple matter of what has a direct economic payoff is giving kids a raw deal. We're not, as a society, going to help this generation of children cultivate skills and interests that they might want simply because they add enjoyment to life (rather than adding a few bucks to someone's profit)? This is the generation that will decide how to deal with us when we're geezers. I'd rather they have some warm feelings about what their education gave them.
  5. Reading novels may help kids cultivate empathy and understanding of people whose circumstances are very different from their own. In other words, novels may be a way to cultivate the cultural understanding needed by workers in a global economy -- at least if those workers are going to be involved in more than assembly lines and call centers. So reading novels may well have an economic benefit!
  6. Fiction is a less contentious site for exploration of things like narrative structure than history textbooks or newspapers. Critical consumers of information (including "current events") ought to be aware of how people tell stories -- and how appeals to emotion get mixed in with appeals to reason. They ought to notice that sometimes the person making a case is an unreliable narrator. You can surely teach these lessons using history books as your source material, but your school district probably needs a damn good legal team to pull it off. I suspect it's cheaper to examine these issues using fiction.
  7. Textbooks are not paragons of engaging writing. I'm not sure I could live in a world where kids aspired to write (or speak) like textbook authors. Maybe I could live in that world, but I'd have a much harder time staying awake in it.
  8. Even for scientists, imagination counts for something. Learning "just the facts" by reading just the "substantive" textbooks doesn't do much to fire the imagination, which seems shortsighted if we think we might need more scientists in the future who can tackle new questions and deliver new facts. Creativity and imagination draw nourishment from lots of sources, and novels might well be one of those sources.
  9. Not all fiction is easy reading, and some of the novels that are most worthwhile require some guidance to get you through them. It's not all John Grisham out there. There is a reason that people get actual advanced degrees in literature. Being able to see that Melville wasn't just telling a story about a whale, or that Baum wasn't just spinning a yarn about a wizard -- noticing larger themes, and symbolism, and all of that good stuff -- enriches your ability to get something out of literature on your own time. And I don't think that's a benefit that should only go to the rich kids or the kids whose families are savvy enough to teach this to them at home.
  10. Lots of non-fictional communication trades on allusions to fiction that kids won't "get" if fiction is dropped from the curriculum. It's part of our cultural repertoire -- at least for now. I'm not sure we want to shift things so that fewer and fewer members of society catch the references in political speeches, op-ed pieces, church sermons, and Simpsons episodes. Then again, I'd like to think of education as being a force that could unite us, rather than further dividing us.
  11. Reading fiction doesn't lend itself easily to assessment via standardized test. That's a good thing because it provides a site of resistance to the idea that all the education that matters can be tracked via multiple choice test. It's time for some pushback!

I could probably go on, but I have to dash. Feel free to add your own reasons to keep fiction in schools in the comments.

Via Pandagon.

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A few additions to your list:

Learning how to de-construct fiction is a fantastic tool in teaching critical thinking skills; for example learning the value of recognizing foreshadowing, learning how to integrate the concepts of theme and plot through the author's clues in the book.

In 9th grade we learned far more than just the destructiveness of racism from To Kill a Mockingbird, we learned how debilitating the fear of strangers can affect small children, we learned about making assumptions, etc etc.

In my high school we didn't have any Philosophy courses, but our English Lit. teacher integrated logic and philosophy into the course work; using literature as a backdrop. I love reading, and I love being able to read on many levels at once thanks to that teacher.

The critical thinking skills I picked up from literature classes have indeed helped me tremendously in my work life. In an interview, my future boss and I stepped outside of the normal interview Q&A about goals and values and contributions and talked about novels. I got the job, and he became a Tom Robbins fan.

Fiction at its very best deals with important issues with infinitely more power than any textbook could ever hope to. Reading, say, Huck Finn will give you a grasp of prejudice, justice, and conscience that you could never hope to get from non-fiction.

Reading fiction can help students learn about the location or era in which the book is set. This can occur both in obvious ways - the world of The Great Gatsby is different from our world, and both are different from the world of Nectar in a Sieve - and in less obvious ways, if a good teacher can guide the students to think about the issues that the author was trying to explore.

Fiction is also a way to process emotions and to deal with the difficult things in life. As a teacher, it's probably very difficult to stand in front of a class of eight-year-olds and tell them that some people die and the rest of us have to grow up. It's much easier - for the teacher and the students - to help them begin to learn these things for themselves with a book like Bridge to Terabithia.

Finally, most of school is not devoted directly to helping children grow into economically productive adults. Instead, the goal of almost everything done in the elementary grades - and much of what is done in the middle and high school grades - is to inculcate a set of basic skills - academic, intellectual, and social - that will serve students throughout their life. Maybe some people see this as wrong, but I think it's an important part of perpetuating a society of informed participants whose role is determined, at least in some measure, by their own interests and strengths rather than their parents' purchasing power and some "is it worth teaching you to appreciate literature?" test they took when they were six years old.

Yeah, she's totally wrong. Exposure to and appreciation for the arts makes students better at traditional academics. That is a fact. If you want kids to be better at the three R's, get them into music, theater and literature.

It's the classic ignorant blunder to assume that the arts are a distraction from academics. They are the most effective gateway to academic success.

I would add to #6 that fiction is a less contentious site for exploring ideas that many find controversial or even offensive. Good fiction has this really neat trick where it both engages you to the point that you're living the experience that you're reading about, and distancing you from it in the sense that you know all along that this is just happening in your imagination.

And, hey, aren't there studies out there that show that reading fiction is good for a person's imagination? We keep hearing about how crucial creativity and inventive thinking are to succeeding in the workforce of the future...

Althouse's arguments sound a lot like those that have been made in the past for getting rid of music and art in the curriculum, and look at how that's improved achievement in other areas--oh, wait...

By Genevieve Williams (not verified) on 18 May 2007 #permalink

I'm sure there at least a few authors (or editors, publishers, printers, librarians, etc...) who would consider recreational reading part of their economic success.

1) I am amazed that you made this post in less than an hour!

2) The most irritating aspect of Althouse's comments is the same reason we all got fired up a couple of weeks ago about your post on Margaret Spellings' and the Department of Education's proposals for higher education assessments. Althouse says, "It's not tied to economic success in life and needn't be inculcated any more than an interest in watching movies or listening to popular music."

3) If they want metrics, I'll offer an anecdote from the field of medicine. It is well known that people who read fiction for fun (usually, as you point out, reading is an acquired taste) score better on the entrance exam (MCAT) to medical school. The kicker is that it's not just on the verbal component, but the biological and physical sciences sections.

In the odd moment thinking about our approach to the spare time pursuits of spawn-of-Drugmonkey, I've been pondering. Why o' why do we feel this visceral imperative "must not watch too much TV" and "must not play videogames too long" while if they want to spend hours reading books..."no problemo".

sorry not going to source it, but i remember an old quote from the time the novel got popularized in which it was going to ruin young people, ruin society, etc- sounded a lot like things that were said about TV two generations ago and videogames currently...

also pondering this as a compulsive reader- does fiction reading share many characteristics of addictive disorders in some people? Anyone wanna bet on the magnitude of the Harry Potter sickout when #7 is released?

I agree that fiction is useful in schools. I will say though that it would be better if schools worked harder to integrate across the curriculum better. For instance, a civil war era book would go well when you're learning about the civil war in history class or a sci fi book when you're learning about astronomy.

Movies take up less time but do everything else you said, as well as provide ineffable visual detail.

I do agree about vocab-building, which you don't get much w/ movies, but that's only certain genres -- Victorian novels, e.g. But in the slight amount of reading of done in history, that's a far more reliable source of big, useful words.

At a guess, the "integration" might be tricky depending on, say, age? That is, on average, younger children might have some trouble separating fact from fiction?

But why "integrate"? What do the children get from that? Offhand, to me, it sounds like an in-depth immersion in something they might not be too interested in, and/or be having considerable troubles with. And even if it is something the child likes and/or is good at, that same stuff, again and again, sounds like a receipe for boredom.


Depends on how it's handled. The bored child may be bored because he's dealing with a bunch of dry facts. Add in people having troubles a lot like his and his interests in the subject may increase.

We like having a connection with a subject. Some folks can do just fine without an obvious connection, but that's because they can and will conjure up that connection on their own. Other folks need a little help in that department.

At our two local relaxacons wizardry classes are held ala Harry Potter. Nothing formal, just people - mostly kids - getting together to explore and imagine. It started out as a one time thing back when the first book was released, but took on a life of its own. The kids have loads of fun, and because they're having fun they're more receptive to learning, and better able to retain what they have learned.

I support teaching kids how to read for pleasure. It means that as long as you have books around the house your kids will never have nothing to do.

I've always wondered if kids who do a lot of reading become better at spelling and grammar than kids who don't read much for pleasure. Has anyone ever studied this?

I started to think about this when I was a TA grading lab reports. Some of my students seemed to find their own language to be a novelty, and had no idea what a good sentence looks like on the page. (One of my fellow grad students used to complain about this even more than I did -- and his own first language was Japanese!)

I've always wondered if kids who do a lot of reading become better at spelling and grammar than kids who don't read much for pleasure.

YES. A thousand times yes. Ask a composition instructor to point out those students who read/do not read for pleasure (or at all) and said instructor will typically be correct.

I also support reading for fun. But I continue to question the usefulness, or advisability, of integrating such reading with other teaching.

First, if the child is having problems with facts, why would fiction help?

Second, why would constant immersion in the environment help?

(Please note these two questions are independent--the child with problems may not be the child who is bored by endless repetition.)

blf -

I have a five year old son, who has a better fundamental understanding of evolution, than I did when I was twenty. I took a picture book, Our Family Tree and built a narrative from the perspective of a single cell and it's journey from being a free single cell to joining with others to become a trilobite, on through to human forms. I told the story as though that single cell knew and could "see" the various forms and creatures it was a part of on it's journey and what it "thought" about those various stages, as the creatures it was a part of adapted and evolved - we continued it with the picture book When Whales Walked into the Sea. Both books were great in their own right, but when the new narative was added, he felt like he had an investment in this cell that was telling the story of it's experience.

We have also used fictional stories to help him understand the rudimentaries of math, something that he just had no interest in, when left to boring numbers.

It is a matter of making the facts more interesting. It is also a matter of providing an emotional investment into the facts that they learn, thus making it easier for them to really retain the information and integrate it with other things they have learned - something that is especialy hard for younger children to do. A good example is my childs understanding of why dinosaurs and other great reptiliads dies off and extrapolating that to an understanding of why different animal species die off. Instead of assuming that some massive change in the weather kills off every species that dies - he has come to understand that there are many different environmental factors, besides weather that can kill off different species.

With the various problem places my son has (mostly social at this stage) we have found that "immersion" or more accurately, sticking with them is a huge help. I think that endless repitition would be incredibly boring, if that's all it is. Rather, what we do, is find all sorts of different contexts for addressing the same issue.

Take whining, rather than just addressing it when he is doing it, we address it when he isn't as well. When we see another child, or even adults doing it, we point it out and talk about it. On the flip, we talk about it when we see someone who could be dealing with a particular situation by whining but doesn't - especialy when he's the kid in question and we talk about why that's such a great thing. We also make up stories about it - not just his mom and I, he has to make up stories too, if he wants one from us, he has to tell us one.

We have also done this with learning about letters, numbers, reading, sharing and many other things he has learned about. The more problems he has in an area - and especialy the more boring he finds something, the more we address it and try to make it interesting. This doesn't mean that we ignore the places he does well or things he finds interesting, it's just that in those things, he doesn't need nearly as much help getting interested and/or undertanding them.

Good or bad is very subjective. But my son has been reading since he was three - reads at a second grade level, w/ comprehension. He has a host of things that he understands and is able to corralate different things he has learned about with eachother, something that a lot of psychologists will say is flat out impossible for kids to do until they are at least seven or eight. A lot of this is due in part to a lot of fictionalising and a lot of immersion with problem areas. Of course, this is also the result of his mom and I spending immense amounts of time focusing on him.

Complaints about teaching things that are "not tied to economic success" are a good sign of a deep intellectual poverty.

The irony, of course, is that probably nothing has contributed more to economic success than the "useless" academics that have given us science and technology and mathematics. Nobody has found a way to disentangle the discovery of useful applications from the whole mass of intellectual exploration. Let us hope no one ever does, after all, it would be a shame to reach economic success only to find that we had forgotten to make anything beautiful or enlightening to buy with our wealth.

By Matthew L. (not verified) on 19 May 2007 #permalink

If I describe Ann Althouse's view as Gradgrindian, does that immediately prove that a knowledge of fiction can be 'academic and substantive'? The adjective neatly sums up in one word all that is worst in viewing education nothing but a tool for 'economic success'. Reading for pleasure adds immeasurably to the appreciation of 'history, science, law, logic.'
A recent study for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development found that:
'Being more enthusiastic about reading and a frequent reader was more of an advantage, on its own, than having well educated parents in good jobs'
Many children do not have parents like DuWayne. They need input from schools and school libraries to introduce them to the joys of reading for pleasure.

Making the school curriculum a simple matter of what has a direct economic payoff is giving kids a raw deal.

Mind-bogglingly shortsighted, too.

Every so often an argument pops up that material payoff is the metric by which what we teach should be judged. To which I can only say, "foo."


As someone who took a novel to nearly every class for the first 11 years of my education, and spent about half of the average lecture with my nose in a book, I'm delighted to read your article.

Lesley -- Do you have a link for that OECD report? I was having an argument about this topic with my boyfriend last night; he said he "didn't see the problem with Althouse's argument," and I was going nuts trying to explain just how full of wrong the statement was. Of course, he figures I'm biased because I'm a literature junkie with one-and-a-bit degrees in English literature (the rest of the second degree is the area of concentration of my MA, which is in something resembling applied rhetoric, so, uh...), a historian, technical writer, and published author. So, yeah, I'm a little bit invested in the whole "reading for pleasure" thing.

On the other hand, I absolutely swear I've seen studies showing a positive correlation between good economic outcomes and reading for pleasure. I believe there's also a good correlation between being in the top quartile of income earners and being in the clerisy, as well, but I couldn't tell you for sure. (In other words, I'm pretty sure there's actually hard research demonstrating that Althouse is so full of it she squeaks.) I haven't gone and ransacked Google Scholar yet, though, but if anyone has some citations close at hand, that would be nice!

By Interrobang (not verified) on 21 May 2007 #permalink

People who read are more interesting to talk to. Even if you never get around to talking about books, readers generally have more to say and express themselves better than non-readers.

There's also the understanding of language. Fictional texts allow you to see how thoughts and words evolve over the years and give a better understanding of the past than extremely condensed bits of the past in a history book.

I just came across your blog and I'll definitely be coming back often. As for this topic, I tutored at an elementary school to help pay my way through grad school. Our kids read historical fiction that coordinated with their history lessons. The stories were interesting and often about kids in particular historical periods. They also read a monthly science magazine for kids that covered topics that would interest kids in language that they'd understand and supplemented this with games. I'd like to see kids engaged more with science-based literature as well. I think this kind of engagement bolsters the the "academic" lessons and allows for students to learn literature as well as other subjects simultaneously. I'm sure I'm not the only sci-fi nerd in love with science in-part from reading non-textbook science-based literature, both science magazines and science fiction in my case.