About two months ago I began a position working through the Washington Reading Corps, a branch of AmeriCorps. The goal of Washington Reading Corps is to work with struggling students on their literacy skills, be it vocabulary, reading comprehension, speaking, active listening, etc. In my specific position, I work with low-income pre-school children (4-5 year olds). I have one specific classroom I work in, but I also work with the other 60 head-start sites in my area through special literacy events and projects. Today I was one of about 30 people sorting through 20,000+ books. That’s right. Over 20,000 books. The agency I’m partnered with teamed up with Bazillion Books for Kids, a Portland-based organization whose goal is to give books to over 100,000 kids. Within my agency, our goal was to give 10 books to around 1,000 kids in our program. Additionally, we wanted to create a lending library at each of the pre-school sites where parents had access to reading materials.
I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a day than to gather materials to increase literacy. In our country, we keep hearing that grades are dropping. Test scores are lower. Society on a whole is getting more stupid. Well, to incredibly simplify the problem, it all comes back to literacy. LITERACY skills are necessary to do anything in life, and the stronger they are, the better. A huge part of literacy is the capability to read. And yet, my generation, and the generations coming up behind me, are reading less and less. Why? Through various discussions, observations, and researches done, here are the top reasons I’ve found.
1) Trouble reading and they get frustrated with trying
2) Lack of interest in material provided
3) Not shown the importance of reading
As writers we should have a goal for everything we write. Whether it is to entertain, to inform, to purge, to mock, or to uplift, every piece we write MUST have a purpose if it is to be anything of value. However, more than having a purpose for the writing in general, we must also have goal of how that piece is going to reach readers. If you are writing a book for a wide general audience, but the writing level and style in the book are at an advanced level, then the interest in the book is going to be low. People will get frustrated and drop it.
And I recognize that people may disagree with me on this, but think about Twilight and Harry Potter. Huge selling series. Popular with both kids, teens, and adults. Why? The reading levels were not complicated, which made the books accessible to general audiences. However, in today’s culture, many classics with higher vocabulary levels and complicated syntax, such as Faulkner and Dickens, are not generally read. If we are to increase literacy in our culture, is it going to come about through no reading at all or through the Twilights and Harry Potters?
Yes, it would be wonderfully nice if everyone in society read and understood Dickens, Dostoevsky, the Brontes, etc. But we cannot start there. Everyone has a reading level, and that’s where we must start. When I was in school, we were regularly tested (about once every 6 weeks) to see how are reading levels were improving. The advice given based on research at the time was that we should read 80-90% in our reading level and then 10-20% just above our reading level for optimum improvement.
Now, most natural readers do this automatically. And yet, since most writers are natural readers we tend to have trouble understanding those who struggle with reading or who refuse to read for whatever reason. But now, more than ever, it is important to write for AUDIENCES. What stories will actually be read? What writing styles and genres will be reach the greatest number of people? What vocabulary will be understood?
To end, I want to encourage all of you to think and consider what you are writing. There is a place for Dickens and Brontes, I cannot deny that. All of my favorites are classics. But, I also know that I would not have made it to the Alcotts and Brontes and Mitchells without the Nancy Drews, the Mary Higgins Clarks, the Madelaine L’Engles.
**SIDENOTE: All of this said, I do not and cannot excuse sloppy writing. There is far too much of that due to poor literacy skills already. Everybody wants to be a writer, a photographer, a whatever. But they don’t want to put in the work to perfect their craft. Sloppy writing does not fulfill a purpose.
***Disclaimer: While this post does discus the duty of benefiting society, it in no way applies or connects this to any form of utilitarianism, socialism, or any other political or philosophical -ism. 😀
****This is the last post I will be making for a while. I have many new projects in the works with the Washington Reading Corps, and unfortunately, as many of you may have noticed, I haven’t always had the time or energy to get my posts up on time. Luckily, Tobias has found someone wonderful to fill in during my hiatus. So, I’ll leave you with my signature “Peace, love, and LIBERTY*****