Reading Well is a Distance Event, Not a Sprint

I look around my room during independent reading time to see still bodies, pages slowly turning, minds deep in thought.  It's taken a long time to get to this point in the school year, the point where I don't have to give anyone the evil eye, put a reminder hand on a shoulder or whisper, "How's it going?" not as a check-in, but as a "Please read your book."  We’re at the point where my students are genuinely into their books, books they have chosen because they have a solid ideas about what they like and what they want to read next. 

How did we get to this point?  Very simply with time, choice and the belief that every kid in my room is already a reader deep inside, even though they might not know it yet.   I, as a professional who knows how important time is, made the decision to start every class period with increasing amounts of time to read. I was un-waveringly insistent, smilingly persistent, and, to be honest, sometimes a down-right, fire-breathing dragon. I fought sneaky technology; I fought excuses; and I fought avoidance like Harry Potter fought Voldemort.  And then came the flood of books.  I book talked, I recommended, I created stack upon stack that I put on desk after desk after desk.  I never accepted, “Yeah, I just don’t like reading. Books are boring.”  Daggers in my heart!  But I’m not going down!  The fight goes on!

However, I also knew that I couldn't stay in the land of resistance.  I knew that instead of only fighting things I didn't want, I needed to build what I did want.  I had to be clear on my goal, make sure the kids were clear on the goal, and then I had to do everything in my power to make it happen.  I had to make the love and joy of books bigger than the power of resistance and excuses.  I had to know that helping my kids become life-long readers, humans who choose to read, is more important than the short-term goal of them reading now because I said so.  And if I actually wanted this to happen, I had to plan my instruction across the whole year, not just in one intense burst at the beginning followed by a year of "I taught that in September."  Reading well, after all, is a distance event, not a sprint.  It requires stamina, continued effort, and renewed motivation across a whole year (and well beyond).  This goes for the teens sitting in my room right now and for the adults who teach them. 

Experienced distance runners know that consistent practice is essential for success.  If my goal is to run 20 miles each week, it is far smarter for me to break that up and run 4 miles a day across 5 days than it is for me to run once a week and do 20 miles (and spend the other 6 days recovering!), especially if I'm new to running.  Gradual build up will bring success. Likewise, I know giving my students time daily to read will create more growth than just giving them one longer session each week.  Shorter sessions on a regular basis build stamina and keep readers engaged. 

Distance runners also know that you don’t just become a runner, stop running, and maintain your running fitness.  A few years ago I trained all summer, building up my miles, and ran a ½ marathon in October.  And then winter came and it was cold.  And windy.  I went to the gym and did workout videos at home, but I didn’t run. The next spring I dusted off my shoes AND STARTED OVER!  Where had my ability to run 13.5 miles gone?  Oh, yeah.  When you stop running, you lose it.  With time and effort, I could build back up again, but right then, I was not a proficient runner. 

Reading is the same, except it’s not as physically obvious.  Yes, people can still decode words when they don’t read often, but so much is gone.  Reading is a rhythm, a flow; it’s not just being able to read words.  It’s understanding the subtleties of language, the nuances of phrases.  It’s reading a character’s personality, motives, humor, unreliability.  It’s following a plot as it twists and turns through places and time periods, even across generations and through imaginary lands.  This rich reading isn’t learned in elementary school, one and done.  And it certainly doesn’t stop at the end of middle school.  Now they know how to read; let’s get on with the real work of English literary analysis.  Growth continues, at its own unfolding, through high school and all of life.

As teachers, we can provide consistent times for kids to read and appropriate instruction to keep growth going, but there is one more important element we must acknowledge:  REST.  Distance runners know that throughout their training, rest must be incorporated.  Pushing as hard and long as you can across weeks and months with no rest often results in injury, where a runner is forced to take time off.  The human body needs days to rest completely, and days of cross training where different muscles are strengthened. 

Readers, too, benefit from rest and cross-training.  A steady diet of hard, intense books burn out readers, and causes injury to life-long reading habits.  Readers need the freedom to listen to their hearts and figure out what’s needed right now – sometimes a new challenge and sometimes the joy of reading an old familiar book they enjoyed before.  Good teachers know when to push and challenge – “Hey Cameron, you’ve read 16 graphic novels in a row.  Do you want to try a new genre next?” These same teachers know when to leave kids alone and let them read that book they’ve chosen purely for the pleasure of it.

When we approach reading as a distance event, we can build life-long readers.  But we must understand that this takes time – years, decades, a life-time, even.  Teaching reading is all our jobs, from the kindergarten teachers who often start it all to the 12th grade teachers who meet kids wherever they are on their reading journey.  We each pick up the torch and run as far as we can until graduation.  At that point our kids, armed with a strong reading foundation, need to be able to take over for themselves, ready to go the distance, reading on, strong and healthy, for years to come.


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