Saturday, November 17, 2012

Reading with a Purpose

It's funny how often the lessons I teach my third graders find their way into my writing life.  Case in point.  This week in third grade, we were learning that good readers often ask questions while they read and then read to find the answers.  This gives your reading focus and purpose, which can help you get more out of it.  After teaching this lesson, I realized I was watching it in action in my own writer-as-reader life.

For example, when I read MOBY DICK in high school, I read it because I had to, and, while I often enjoyed books that I read because I had to, the pressure of assigned reading just as often meant powering through a book without deep understanding, leaving me with vague, fuzzy impressions and an overall sense of the book as a "tough read."  MOBY DICK is the latest book in my process of re-reading the classics as a grown-up, only this time, I'm reading with a very specific purpose related to a character I want to write about (the character demanding to be heard, see my recent post).  Reading MOBY DICK at my own pace as my own self-imposed assignment, I find myself gleaning more out of all of it than I did the first time, even the lengthy digressions about the craft or history of whaling, the types of whales and the parts of the whale.  I'm getting more out of it because I'm reading with a purpose, a self-assigned purpose.

As an adult, with a demanding job and lots of other things going on in my life, I've noticed a tendency for my attention to drift when I read.  But when I'm reading with a purpose, that doesn't happen.  Whether it's reading short stories to build my skills as a short story writer, or reading a book about AIDS with highlighter in hand to add to my knowledge base as research for a new project, if I'm reading with a deep and specific purpose, I sit up and pay attention.

Too often, as teachers, we fail to train our students in setting themselves a purpose before they read.  Watching this lesson unfold in my own brain has given focus and purpose to the process of teaching this lesson to my students.  Do I detect a pattern?


  1. This is interesting, Cynthia. And a bit of an adjunct to my point that I made to a parent that we as educators focus on "Make it relevant!" as our mantra when it comes to students.
    I argue the opposite. They get relevance all the time in their own choices.
    It's important to make it unrelated at times, and force kids to find their own personal relevance to what they read. If we chase relevance we become those completely uncool adults who kids look at sideways.
    Beyond that, the most important lessons in life tend to come from the things that have no direct relevance to what we do or are. It is those things we read which help us grow more than anything else.

    1. Thanks for the comment. You're so right, too, that some of the most powerful lessons come unexpectedly. So many things I would never have read if they hadn't been assigned to me in the first place. MOBY DICK again comes to mind. A lot of it was a wash when I first read it, but the final image of the ship going under has always stayed in my mind, and it was that image that caused me to link this character with this book. It's turning out to be a fortuitous link with lots of wealth to mine, but I never would have gotten there if my high school English teacher hadn't forced us to read it.


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