Why Public Schools Fail to Create Readers

Here’s an article I dug out for one of my worldbuilders. It’s well-written, it’s fascinating, it’s full of history, it’s true, and if you haven’t run across it before, you’re going to struggle with some major resistance to what it says. You won’t like what you read.

But, with that in mind, it’s something every author should know, and probably every reader, too.

Once you’ve read it, I’d like to hear your stories on how you became readers, and how you became writers.

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65 responses to “Why Public Schools Fail to Create Readers”

  1. Yog-Sothoth Avatar

    How did I become a reader? As long as I can remember, our home was full of books. I’m told that my big brother read to me as a child; I don’t remember that. I do remember being paid to read books, I’d get twenty cents for each one I read. My parents would buy me books if I wanted them and took us to the library often. I remember starting reading SF early, Dad had copies of Isaac Asimov’s robot stories in paperback, and I also read Foundation and Second Foundation.

    I started spending all my money on books and by the time I was about 12 or 13 I think I’d read more than 1,000 books of all types. They overflowed my shelves and filled drawers. All the classics from the 1940s and 1950s, Asimov, E. E. “Doc” Smith, Edgar Rice Burroughs. Also Lovecraft, Verne, H.G. Wells. Many others, most of which I have long forgotten.

    I remember being taught English at school – they made us read incredibly boring Australian “literature” like Thea Astley’s An Item From The Late News. Maybe it’s a good book, but I was so bored stiff by literary novels that I never really read it. We also studied Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In that book, there is a scene in which babies are shown books and then given electrical shocks to create aversion. The boring way that literature is taught in schools reminds me of that. Except that the current method is far crueller than electrocuting babies!

    I’m told that when I was in second grade, the teacher told us to write a story. When she saw mine, she reckoned my handwriting was so bad that I must be retarded. But once she deciphered my hieroglyphics, the story was “brilliant!” Writing talent at an early age? Or just absorbing story elements from being read to?

  2. Annah Johnson Avatar
    Annah Johnson

    I guess I was lucky going to school where I did. The teachers didn’t force their idealology on the students, and actually encouraged criticl thinking. Of course, I went to a very small school, 500 students from pre-k to 12. If the parents’ didn’t agree with what the teacher was teaching, they didn’t last long.

    It was my high school english teacher who encouraged me to write. She gave me my first copy of ‘Writer’s Digest’.

    As for when I started reading, I couldn’t say. I do remember that I read my first grown-up book at 13. Before that I read a lot of Goosebumps and the camp fire ghost story books that you get through the school book fair.

    I do encourage my children to read, and to make up their own stories.

    1. Annah Johnson Avatar
      Annah Johnson


      1. Connie Dynn Avatar

        Love this article! I think it is a crime that children don’t learn to read. With “No Child Left Behind,” more kids were promoted to next grade without learning to read or do math. By the time kids are in Middle School, they aren’t going to be taught how to read. They are just expected to be readers.

        1. Holly Avatar

          This is a failure of top-down education. When local schools were responsible for their own curriculums and their own results, and the emphasis was on learning rather than testing, kids learned to read.

  3. LPogue Avatar

    Within a week of starting kindergarten, my son told me his teacher told him I was stupid and didn’t know how to teach him anything. I guess I was stupid. I didn’t immediately remove him from school. When he was in 7th grade, for a series of complex reasons, and for his safety when he was threatened by several gangs for not joining them, I did take him out of public school and home schooled him through the rest of his education. The change in him after two months of home schooling was so incredible, I have since mourned the years he spent in public school. At 13, he became the kid I knew when he was little. Fun, fun-loving, caring, and sharing. He had built such a tight emotional shelter around himself to survive school, that he had forgotten how to be himself.

    My main regret is that I didn’t home school him from the beginning. His children have never been to public school, and never will be if he has a choice about it. My daughter also home schools her children.

    It is fascinating to watch my grandchildren as they grow into confident, self-reliant individuals.

    If anyone has a question about whether home school is really worth it, the answer is a resounding YES!


    1. Holly Avatar

      That’s been my experience, too.

      1. Connie Dunn Avatar

        I chose to home school my youngest daughter after she had a traumatic experience at school. Some boys were throwing hard dirt clods at her. She actually began reading at age four, so she really wasn’t even being challenged at school. She went on to graduate high school at age 15.

        The single-most important thing that parents of home schooled kids can do is allow them to read anything and everything. You basically can learn anything, if you can read! The classics are great! Contemporary work is great! My daughter was a dancer. We did a lot surrounding dance. Learning dance history and comparing what happened in the dance world with world history was fascinating. I would never have explored that myself. So the parent gains as much as the parent. I loved being there for all of her firsts! It’s miraculous to see those light bulbs go off when a child puts something they’ve been puzzling and studying.

        1. Holly Avatar

          Homeschooling has been wonderful for us, too. My youngest is going to be a senior this year. The older two are 31 and 29 now. It’s so hard to imagine we’ve been doing this for so long—but it’s been worth every minute.

          1. Connie Dunn Avatar

            Congratulations! It’s not an easy road, necessarily, but it is rewarding. And I feel that while Public School teaches a broad range of things, home schooled students can explore a subject deeply and quench their desire to learn about the topic.

            I’m not sure that learning a tiny bit about a lot of stuff is either a sign of learning or does justice for educating our children. We now teach the test (a variety of standardized tests) more than teach children how to learn, which is more the goal of home schooling. I whole-heartedly believe that when there are choices in learning, students learn more.

            My daughter began writing essays when she was in like the third or fourth grade. By the time that she was in the fifth grade, she was writing research papers. She didn’t know that was usually something you learned in high school.

            My point…kids have the potential of learning far more than what they normally learn in public school. We didn’t take the summer off. We didn’t need to take the weekends off. We found ways to learn at all times of the night and day, during holidays, summers, and any time. On the other hand, when we wanted to take a day off, it was easy to just do it!

  4. Debra Avatar

    I was 6 at the time. A time when the highlight of my day was singing nursery rhymes and finding play dough around the class. We had this programme in our school where, you started with easy books and there were different levels and the books became harder and harder. I read more and more and I didn’t realise it at the time but I was learning more and more as well, when I came across a word I didn’t know, it would bug me everyday until I looked it up in a dictionary. Reading was a chore to most in my class but I found it enjoyable; it took me to another place for a few hours. This continued for 2 years. By then I was on a higher level.

    One day, in English class, our teacher told us to write a story. The plot could be about anything, so I wrote and I loved it! Sure, the story sucked but I thought it was amazing at the time. From then, I made writing not just something I do in school. I started writing out of school too. Most of the stories were about princesses in castles and I cringe when reading them today but I was 8 and it was a start.

    I wrote – still write now – for many different reasons. Admittedly, escapism is one of them. But so is passion and determination and peseverance. I fix things up in my stories all the time but it doesn’t put me off.

    That is how I became a reader and a writer, hopefully published when I get a little bit older.

  5. Larrissa Avatar

    I’ve been read to or readin my entire life. My Mum (Mom for you Americans) was an avid reader. She would still be if she had five minutes to herself every once in a while.

    She started reading to me before I was born apparently. And on the nights she was too tired to read, as I got older, I made up stories to the pictures.

    When it came time for me to learn how to read, I would only read for my aunty. She was only a few years older than me and going through the school system. They memorised the books before they were sent home. My grandfather picked up on it and complained, very loudly, to the school.

    I’m not sure how I actually learned from my aunty. I do know the main reason I wanted to read was because I wanted to know the stories that went along with the pictures. As I got older I picked up chapter books. I’ve read everything I could since I learned, even if I did have to have a dictionary handy when I was younger.

    I went through the public school system in New Zealand. I don’t know about in other parts of the world but I feel they fail in more than just reading and literacy programs. I found it interesting my primary (elementary) school teachers were surprised i was reading authors like Stephen King and Anne McCaffrey when I was 8. Sorry Holly, hadn’t discovered your work then. We did reading comprehension tests and the hightest the marks went to was 16.

    I currently have a personal library of over 1000 books and it keeps growing. Any children I have, I will encourage to read. Would I send them to public school? Some things would have to change pretty drastically over here before I considered it.

  6. Itta Avatar

    When I was four or five years old, I taught myself to read. I had been a book fanatic for a long time, and the one or two bedtime stories I got just weren’t enough. I made whoever read to me, point to the words, and then I would sit up afterward with the book, sounding out the words instead of saying them by heart. By the time I got into first grade, my mother says, I was reading eighth grade level (not necessarily understanding it, but reading it). Then I went into elementary school and I had to sit with a class that was behind me and read the cat in the hat and Junie B, Jones…Needless to say, it wasn’t very encouraging. Besides for that, all of my sisters and I knew how to add and subtract perfectly before we got into kindergarten, and I think this is true with most children, but then when we started school, we just got confused with the different words and symbols, and fell all the way back. I’ve been pretty much terrible at math ever since. I definitely think schools should give children more encouragement and help them grow in whatever they’re best at instead of making them sit through classes they’re way past. Maybe this could really be achieved by giving kids more independent time to teach themselves before they have to sit in a classroom. Thank you for this revealing article. It really makes you think.

  7. Maja Covic Avatar
    Maja Covic

    Dad read me bed-time stories as way back as I can remember: Aesop fables, Grim brothers’ fairy tales, Scheherazade’s 1001 nights… Mom read captions when we watched sitcoms in English. That’s how I learned to read and speak English before starting school. (age 7, as in Sweden)

    Since then I’ve read picture books, kid’s adventure novels, teen angst, chick-lit, detective stories, mysteries, thrillers, folk tales, scriptures, mythology, fantasy, SF, popular science books, even an atlas and an encyclopedia!

    I’ve found great stories and important lessons in documentaries as well as every genre of music, film, TV, or PC games.

    I’ve started writing late with fan fiction. My wish is to follow in the footsteps of great SF authors and make one horrifying story as a self-preventing prophecy.

    Take care

  8. Michael Polk Avatar
    Michael Polk

    I have been reading for about as long as I found out that I could use my thumbs to pick up a thick rectangle (Cat in the Hat), and for as long as my brother watched Jeopardy! (we turned on the captions), and I was reading as soon as I found out what all those squiggles were (that would be about 3-4 years old). I started writing fiction in second grade, with an odd Pokemon story I dubbed “Dance of the Pikachu Fairies”, which has long since left my head, along with my other Pokemon fantasies. Then I tried my hand at Star Wars stories. You have no idea how hard the character of Han Solo is to voice. Inevitably, I gave up the saga. But in sixth grade, in the midst of the worst teacher ever, we had a blackout at school, which gave my friend Jacob the idea of Demon Fighters. I joined in the crusade by saying “I wanna be a fairy!” Thus was born Pixie the Woodland Moonfairy. So now I write sci-fi, after of course finding out that I could not do mystery or fantasy or realistic fiction. I am an alien builder, and I hope someday to join the noble ranks of Gene Roddenbery, George Lucas, and Jim Henson in the Creature Creator Leagues, also to get the English language to recognize the word “auth”.

  9. Holly Lisle Avatar
    Holly Lisle

    I agree with the article, I always have thought that we start children in school too early.
    Unlike many people, I wasn’t a reader for a long time. I enjoyed the stories being read to me. I loved listening to my (late) grandfather reading from his poetry books, my father reading his scientific books (no matter how hard they were to understand) and my mother reading her fantasy stories. I loved them all.
    Then I went to kindergarten. They expected us to read dull books about watching someone sit or stand. I wanted to read books about princesses and theories and all the other interesting things. I began hating to read by myself. My mom had taught me my alphabet and a little reading/ writing but it never clicked that there were books that I could read about princesses too. Then my mom made a deal with me, if I wanted her to read to me I would have to read a page to her.
    What really got me into it? I picked up books that were a little too big for me and my dad started reading to me after dinner. It was always hard to tear him away the TV, and us reading together tore him away from it. He is also a terrific out loud reader. He does accents for all the characters; he emphasizes the words and let me ask questions.
    Once I was in 5th grade I began reading anything I could get my hands on. It was my escape from school when people teased me or when my mom was yelling at me. Soon I learned almost everything I knew from reading.

  10. Holly Lisle Avatar
    Holly Lisle

    Well its a long time since I as in school but being in the UK I can only say the standard of education all round has fallen dramatically. No wonder there are not so many readers or writers.

  11. judy Avatar

    I don’t know the US school system at all but I am a primary teacher in the UK and am quite shocked at the number of postings which are very anti-school and teachers! Education is always changing, trends come and go, and to an extent it is – sadly – a ‘political football’. However, my experience as a teacher convinces me that the majority of teachers actively seek to promote creativity, independent thought and general ‘thinking skills’ – all of which can be so important not just in school but in life.In many school those early years are full of play, talk, investigation and child initiated activity – whether that’s making their own booklets about dinosaurs or digging in the mud; they learn in their own way. This is complemented by some guided tasks leading into more conventional literacy/numeracy skills as the child is ready. Please don’t forget – as one person pointed out – that there are many families who do NOT promote/enjoy or share reading, books, making up stories, going to the library. Exactly the families who would probably not give their children the education for life that they need and deserve unless schooling was compulsory.
    We are constantly sharing books in many ways with our pupils, and they share their own book experiences with us all too. We don’t try to teach them what to write exactly, but endeavour to give them the tools they need to express themselves. At times this may involve some type of ‘practise this’ exercise of course, (change the adjectives to new ones, use different ways to begin your sentences) but it’s not intended to be stifling; rather to equip them
    with another skill to use.
    In a school, a certain amount of ‘training’ and conformity is necessary for us to work cooperatively and productively as a team/group/class etc; but creative, thoughtful, unusual, quirky, independent pupils are the ones we all appreciate. Honestly! In the staff room a most common comment is about children who ‘expect it all handed to them on a platter’, ie’ can’t be bothered to think for themselves. They are really hard work!
    So, please don’t be too tough on teachers; as some of you have commented, there are plenty of them out there – in the US as well as here in the UK – who are celebrating and nurturing individuality and creativity in every child!

    1. Sylvia Granville Avatar
      Sylvia Granville

      I realise this is several years on, but your comment as a teacher resonated with me. I, too, am a teacher, recently retired from over forty years of teaching in an international school in Europe. We were lucky in that we had excellent conditions for the students’ learning experience: small class sizes, motivated parents, almost unlimited resources, a wide variety of students from all over the world, dedicated teachers who were well paid and constantly learning themselves. The exact opposite occurs in many state-run schools all over the world. The parents may also be motivated, but often helpless and the teachers may be dedicated, but overworked. The difference, of course, is money – money that governments should be investing in the future of their citizens.

  12. Silvia Avatar

    I went to a public school and my teachers did nothing but encourage reading, writing and learning. But then again, I don’t live in America. I don’t know what the education system is like over there, but the idea that all public schools stifle students’ creativity is ridiculous. I could be wrong, but that article seemed a little biased.

    I don’t speak English at home and when I was five, I struggled to read and write. My parents weren’t good at English and I was constantly frustrated because my primary school placed a lot of emphasis on reading and I couldn’t do it. But my mum did her best to help me and two years later, my nose was always glued to a book to the point everyone commented on it 🙂

    1. Michael Polk Avatar
      Michael Polk

      The public brick-and-mortar schools do stifle creativity over in America. Do you know how many times I was told in art class what to create? Loads. In music class, we sang utterly stupid songs. My brother had to sing the Barney song one time! And he was in sixth grade! Not till sixth grade did I even get to read and write what I wanted to during school hours.

  13. Luka Valentine Avatar

    Hmm, very fascinating article and although I am not American (or in a public school) I can definitely see some parallels. I wonder what adolescence would be like without a formal or traditional education!

    As for how I became a reader – I can’t even remember not reading! We moved around a lot when I was growing up, and the very first thing we’d unpack after the mattresses would be the bookshelves; my mother would always say “it’s not home if the books aren’t out”. I started telling stories to my younger siblings when I was around six or seven before bed to keep them entertained or if we had seen a scary movie, and story writing progressed from there – it was actually helped along by school creative assignments, and in particular by an amazing teacher I had who helped me out when I really needed it. Now, I just write near constantly for the sheer joy of it (and because my sister is very very insistant)!

  14. Terry Avatar

    Yes, formalized schooling can stiffle creativity. But access to any schooling is a boon to children from families where there is no tradition of learning. Myself, I want to make sure these kids learn to read and write and get a chance in life. It is only fair. I have trouble envisioning a system, other than mandated, where everyone gets a chance. It seems unlikely that a freewheeling capitalistic approach will work and not drop large numbers of disadvantaged students. Any system we use must still educate the students whose parents don’t read to them.

    My Father told stories to me every night before bed. Some he read. Some he pulled from thin air. I started trying to read and write at four but the words I had learned were not enough to tell his tales. There are never enough words to tell the tales in my memory. Now I focus on telling tales of my own and at the request of my son, I am writting them down.

  15. Londy Leigh Avatar
    Londy Leigh

    FANTASTIC article, Holly! Thanks so much for sharing it with us.

  16. Sherman Avatar

    I’m currently still in the public education system, although not in America, the system is mostly the same. I have seen the actions of many of my teachers speak loud and clear. That my opinion in almost everything that we were learning was not appreciated. There was always a right answer or way of thinking and that was what had to be duplicated during the test. I’m not an “A grade” student because I have a tendency to ignore something if I don’t believe it will be beneficial to me outside of school. My parents have always urged me to think for myself and not to follow like a sheep in the path of others. I continuously have discussions about almost everything from politics to religion with my dad.

    I learnt to read when I was four. I used to read aloud to my parents until six when I started reading alone. At school they would only allow us to borrow one book per week. I usually finished that book before the end of the day. My mum started buying and borrowing other books for me to read. It’s something that has been with me since then. Whenever I read or hear anything that interests me I research about it until I’m positive that I know everything that there is to know about that subject.

    I didn’t start taking creative writing seriously until I was twelve. It was because of something that my English teacher said to me that I originally started writing. Since then I’ve had an array of amazing English teachers that have encouraged me to continuing writing. My current English teacher, although not very creative herself, respects and encourages creativity in all her students.

  17. Thea Avatar

    …and I do very much apologize for how long that was. These little comment boxes here make me think I’m not saying enough. 🙂

  18. Thea Avatar

    I live in Canada and, except for three years of homeschooling while in the States, I’ve done all my schooling here. It’s not that much different from the American system (I think), except for academic standards and the fact that we call it grade seven instead of seventh grade. 🙂 But things are changing. My sister-in-law is a grade one teacher, and when she tells me about how she teaches her kids, I love to hear about the creativity that she encourages. From letting kids go crazy with modifiers to wearing two different coloured socks to school to having skull-shaped earrings, she gives her kids a pleasant shock of independent thinking. Part of this is her wacky personality, but a lot of it is what she was taught in university on how to teach. And her kids love her. If this is the trend of schooling here in Canada, I can’t wait to see what happens next!

    As for how I became a writer and a reader… well, it was kind of inevitable. My parents both love to read and, before I went to school, my mom would read all kinds of books to me, including things like “Heidi” and “Treasures in the Snow”. I learned how to read and write in grade one (although I knew a little bit in kindergarten- I have proof of it somewhere, random capitals, flipped letters and all), but I was always frustrated when reading time came. Basically, once I learned how to read, I took off, and was soon more advanced than anyone else in the class. I would ask my teacher if I could read some of the books from the higher reading levels, but she wouldn’t let me. Apparently, I had to stay within my grade level. 😛
    I’m not a naturally rebellious person, but I have a well-developed ability to be passive-agressive. I read the boring books that were “at my level” when in class, but I found all my fun books in the library at school. They never said a word about reading levels there. 🙂 By the time I was in grade three, I had read my first adult and young adult novels and had devoured coutnless fantasy and science fiction novels, including the Chronicles of Narnia. Just before grade five, I read what is still my most favourite book ever: “A Wrinkle in Time”, which has been continuously in print ever since is was published. Now, I am in a university-level English class, reading things like Chaucer and Milton and understanding far more of it far more quickly than the rest of my classmates.
    As for writing, I have always liked stories and I don’t really remember when I began creating them. I do remember when I started writing them down just for me, and that was in grade two. I only ever finished one of those stories (about a sabertooth trying to kill a baby mammoth, and the mammoth using the sabertooth’s plans against him), but I knew then that I wanted to write. I had no plans for it as a career or publishing anything. I just wanted to write stories because I loved to.
    I didn’t find out until a few years ago that my mom, basically all her siblings, and my grandma (their mom) all love to write and create, and that my mom had actually wanted to become an author at one point. As for my dad… he programs computers. But he also has a liking for science fiction and fantasy and nearly all things weird. Because of him, I have a liking for science fiction, fantasy, nearly everything in between, and nearly all things that it would be a vast understatement to call weird. And people wonder why I act the way I do…

  19. Shannyn Avatar

    Does anyone remember reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for the first time? I must have been 12 or so and it was the first book I can remember that was a “serious” read. I mean, I grew up with Little House on the Prairie series, and other books… but this one.. wow. I’m not sure how I got ahold of that book. I remember that it wasn’t too long after that that I moved on to adult fiction and rarely returned to the juvenile section. The library ladies all know me by name and eventually weren’t surprised anymore during the summers when I would check out a stack of books 2 foot high. They were awesome ladies.

  20. Shannyn Avatar

    Good read. I like the idea that the Swedes have… I even know a Swede and had no idea that was their school structure. I think they may be closer to their families as well.

    I did want to let everyone know what the public elementary school that my son goes to is doing. They have set a goal for each child (in the forth grade) to read at least 1,000,000 (1 million) words by the end of the school year. They track the reading and all the books in their library have test that can be taken to determine whether or not the book was read, calculate the number of words and child’s reading level. It’s mid-November and my son is already at 620,000 words. We are hoping he’ll be the first to reach 1,000,000 but there are some other kids ahead of him. I don’t know if this is a state thing or not, but I like it.

    My mom read to me as a kid and I got sent to my room a lot a as a pre-teen and teenager and books were the only silent thing I could get away with, and since I already liked to read, it wasn’t exactly punishment. She really should have thought that one through…

    I started reading the Hank the Cowdog series to my son several times a week when he was almost ready to read. He got so hooked on them that he couldn’t wait to read on his own. He now reads books that are at the 5th and 6th grade level, but every once in a while (like today) he’ll bring home a Hank the Cowdog book for extra fun, along with the other books he checks out.

  21. Tyrean Avatar

    John Taylor Gatto – a strong voice crying out against the oppressive practices of the American public school system. Thank you for sharing his article.
    I had a kindergarten teacher who didn’t believe I could read, and a mom who believed I could read higher level books and took me to the library once a week. I love reading, and I take my kids to the library at least twice a month in the summer and once a week during the school year. We home school.
    Before schooling, I liked to write with both hands . . . during school I was forced to choose, and being the kind of kid I was (still am) I chose to be left handed because I knew my teacher wouldn’t like it. I was “good” on the outside, but on the inside, I rebelled.
    During those long school hours, I learned to daydream but pretend to pay attention. I can’t say that this is a useless skill, but when I find myself drifting during a conversation I want to listen to . . . I realize I created some bad habits for myself.
    As a writer, daydreaming is good!
    But I have to limit my use of that skill . . .and sit down to write.

    1. Shannyn Avatar

      I too did the daydreaming-but-pretending-to-pay-attention thing in school. It actually helped me multitask and now I can type one thing while listen to my boss talk about something completely unrelated… Lets hear it for the daydreamers!

  22. Jennifer from Phoenix Avatar
    Jennifer from Phoenix

    I really did not learn to read in school—I was born during the height of the baby boom, and was one of the poorest readers in 1st thru 3rd grades. I was overlooked by overwhelmed teachers with more than 30 students. After all, I was a good little girl: quiet, compliant, bored, and unable to see the blurs on the blackboard or to read the expression on the teacher’s face.
    But during the summer vacation between 3rd and 4th grades, my mother enrolled me in a community reading contest—read so many books (I think it was 30) and write a sentence or two on each one, and win a fabulous prize. My mother scoured the used book and thrift stores for interesting children’s books, and at some point during that long summer I discovered the magic spell that reading could cast. I didn’t win the fabulous prize, but I did win my own ball point pen! (I still have it…)
    I was particularly struck by one phrase in the article:
    “…schooling after the Prussian fashion removes the ability of the mind to think for itself. It teaches people to wait for a teacher to tell them what to do and if what they have done is good or bad.”
    We moved to a different state just before I went into 5th grade, and on my first grade report, I received an Unsatisfactory mark for Initiative. I asked my mother what initiative meant, and after some fumbling around, she came up with a definition of “doing things without being told to.” I felt betrayed! All my school life, I had been the good little girl, sitting quietly, doing exactly as I was told to—and now it’s wrong? But I couldn’t voice any of that to my mother; that would have been talking back, and I was a good little girl…

  23. Diana Brandt Avatar
    Diana Brandt

    Please forgive any typos. I’m struggling here with a flexible rubber keyboard.

  24. Diana Brandt Avatar
    Diana Brandt

    I don’t know how old I was when I started reading. I feel like I always have been reading. My Dad was a reader. We always had books in the house. My parents were very poor, raising 5 children but we always had books. My earliest book memory was a book about ballerinas. I read that and practiced everything in it! I think I was b/w 6 and 8. Remember when you could buy the encyclopedias in the grocery store? And you could get a new one each week? We had a complete set. And I remember reading them for hours.
    The summer I was 12 (1969) we moved and I found a book in the attic. That was when I fell in love with historical romance. It was written in 1944 by Kathleen Winsor and is called Forever Amber.

    I have 2 sons that are grown now. One struggled to read and the other one was a born reader. We went o the library. We went to book stores. I bought them any book they ever wanted. My parents bought me a subscription to I think it was called turtle magazine. It was back in the 60’s and had a turtle on the cover. And humpty dumpty magazine. I continued the tradition with my boys.
    Now my grandson is 11. He struggles to read like his father. But he dose read. For Christmas I bought him the complete Magic Treehouse and Lemony Snicket series on ebay. That is his reading level. He loves the show Merlin on sci-fi. He wrote a story for school about a character called Merlin. I was so proud off him. He is also starting to read the Percy Jackson series. I’m buying him an ereader for Christmas this year. I think anyone can instill a love of reading in a child. Not just the parents.

  25. Diana Brandt Avatar
    Diana Brandt

    Holly I read the first paragraph and I thought I’m right there with you!
    Then I read the second paragraph and I’m “YES!” . I’ve been saying this for years. We are sending our children to school way too young! I don’t care if it’s free babysitting or if Japan does it and they’re ahead of us. Let our children be children and have the wonder of discovery with the people that love and cherish them. For those that don’t get this at home and need to be in public school-okay I get that. Then going to school at a certain age should be a choice. If parents have right to determine religion or medical care we should be allowed to choose this too. I know for a fact mine were harmed by going to school when they did.

  26. Ginger from Detroit Avatar

    I received my first public library card long before I started school. My Mom walked my brothers and sister and I to the library several times a month to pick up books. Yes, it seemed like it was two miles both ways, but it was well worth it!

    Living in Michigan we were blessed with a library in every neighborhood chocked full of well-loved books. Mom taught me how to follow my favorite authors, and I read every title they’d ever written. I knew how to thumb through a card catalog and recite the Dewey decimal system as well as I could spell my own name. By the time I outgrew the children’s section, I had read every book and graduated to the “grown-up” shelves.

    I began reading Nancy Drew then went onto mysteries and contemporary fiction. Desperate I began reading everything; the backs of cereal boxes, menus, street signs. I couldn’t escape the magic of the printed word. Books were often my escape from reality.

    From the moment I began to put letters into words, a book was never far from my hand. Yes, I was one of those kids beneath the blankets with a flashlight. My parents are readers and my sister is an avid reader. I grew up listening to my relatives tell stories. Some true, not elaborated. Stories became a journey into another land another place. I began writing as a teenager, making up suspense and mystery stories of my own. Even tried a romantic or two.

    When the opportunity rose to become a reviewer for The Michigan Chronicle, I jumped at it! What better opportunity to satisfy my craving for a good story than to receive several stories daily. Then I went on to become a reviewer for a small communications firm in New Jersey. I received several books in the mail at once. And for free! If I read a good book review, it’s a guarantee I’ll purchase the book. If I enjoy a novel, I’ll pass the word. The best perk about being a reviewer is passing along an amazing new author.

    Now I’ve grown up even more. My love affair for words inspired me to start my own publishing company, so I get to fiddle with words all day long. We shine the light on others who shine the Light, by promoting their books and their messages. We string together words we’ve written, edited, proposed, sung, spoken, coached, pitched, and more! Words thrill me. Story entices me—draws me in—beckons to me.

  27. michele_lang Avatar

    wow, these stories resonate with me…I wrote something similar in my website bio…

    Reading kept me sane, but in order to become a writer I had to make my peace with the outside, “mundane” world.

  28. Mary Avatar

    I read because my parents read. My dad read books and still does. He read science fiction and fantasy books when I was young and I still remember sneaking into his bedroom and reading a little of this and a little of that of whatever was sitting on his bedside stand. My mom read the backs of milk cartons, the ingredients lists of food, cook books, and newspapers (dad took the front page, sports and the funnies)… she occasionally read a book but not often and you could tell she didn’t devour it like he did.
    In the time when comics were bad for you my dad had a job. He was in the Air Force and comics were a no no in the barracks. Every once in a while his job was to go through the barracks and remove the comics… and home he would bring them… bags and bags of comics. Every kid for blocks around would come and we would sit on the porch (or what passed for it) and read for hours on end for a few days. It was heaven. We loved those days! I still remember someone saying something to my mom about the badness of reading comics and she said “its reading and no reading is bad for you.” There were all types, from Ritchie Rich and Veronica to Superman and Aquaman (I had such a crush on Aquaman!)… the men in the barracks had varied tastes and I got exposed to a wealth of characters, as it were.
    Scholastic books were also big in our house. We always got to order. We weren’t rich and there wasn’t a lot of gifting between birthdays and Christmas but when the catalogs for Scholastic came out, we always got to order several books each.
    We also had Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boy books. I’m not sure that went quite the way my parents planned though: my brother had a crush on Nancy and I loved the boys so we traded off a lot.
    My parents are why I will never give up on giving books in my family as gifts. Maybe one time a nonreader will read one and the magic will hit: like a porch full of comic readers.
    I write because of Mrs. Theodore Hill, my sixth grade teacher. She taught at Anderson Elementary School on Guam. She was a cool teacher. Every Friday she sent your week’s work home in a folder… your parents had to sign it and send it back. If on Friday your week’s work was done, you got to do fun stuff, like go to a square dancing or dance class in the afternoon, or learn to do a receiving line (I will never forget when she taught us to meet the base comander, Gen. Crumm. She said it was not polite to say “Hello Gen. Crumm. How are you and all the little Crumms?”. Ok, I’m old 🙂 Learning such things then was considered fun in school 🙂 Anyway, if you didn’t have assignments done you had to sit and do extra credit work. Writing. Or you could just do writing as extra credit work to bring your grade up. I liked good grades (An A on the report card was worth a dollar at home) so I did this writing occasionally. SHe picked the writing. Short stories, poems… It was usually fun stuff (for me)…I found I enjoyed it.
    Then we made a trip to a “sister school” and spent a day at a Guamanian grade school. Great fun and after that we wrote articles for a class newspaper about it… she printed it (like a real newspaper: I have no idea to this day how) and I saw my name in print (twice! my very first poem and an article).. I was hooked. My writing for extra credit took up more Fridays…
    I still have the report card where she wrote she expected to see a book of poetry by me someday. My parents kept it. They gave it to me. Probably not, but I still write poetry. It is, when something truly touches me the most, my ultimate expression… sometimes the only way I can feel like the words came out right. I don’t do it often but it is inside me and will always be. Because of Mrs. Theodore Hill. She taught more than extra credit. A magical teacher who I am sure never knew what a differnce she made in her students lives. I am positive I am not the only one.
    Three people and a lifetime with a passionate love of words.

  29. Holly Avatar

    Thanks to everyone who answered this question. I was moved by your answers. I visited every website, followed every link, read every word.

    I found variations of my own story, over and over again.

    I think so long as the educational system creates its own outsiders, there will still be people in public schools who learn how to think in spite of everything that is being done to prevent them from doing it.

    I think Ritalin is the way the system is forcing the nonconformists to conform, though, and until parents develop the balls to stand up for their kids and protect them from being drugged, the kids who would be like us today are being erased.

    I was a busy, bouncy, twitchy kid whose mind ran on ten tracks at once. I’m that sort of an adult, too. It’s a survival trait, I think. One we shouldn’t squelch.

  30. Linda Avatar

    I started reading when I was about three. I asked my mom what all the words in my kiddie books were and branched off on my own from there. I vaguely remember her telling me how to sound out the words. I’ve considered books to be my vice, and the overstuffed bookshelves, and boxes of books that we can’t unpack until we’re in our own place again, are my evidence.

    I started writing when I was about 10. It was a mystery. Nancy Drew was my initial inspiration. My friend and I pretended to be Nancy and made up our own adventures. That was the AHA! for me. I could make up and write down my own stories. I wasn’t limited to reading what authors wrote. I’ve been writing off and on since then. 🙂

  31. Liz Avatar

    I started reading pretty early, too, but I started reading voraciously when my parents decided to drag the family to Grenada when I was nine. No people my age near by, no school or anything to go to, so I got bored and read all the kiddie books we’d brought. Then my brother handed me Raymond Feist’s MAGICIAN: MASTER, and I was hooked. When we came back to the States, my parents had to have a few conferences with teachers/school librarians to make sure I was allowed to read whatever I wanted for book reports. I recently moved and came across a book report where I complain about the lack of new vocabulary words in a book, and the teacher wrote that she thought it had a very rich vocabulary. (OK, I was snotty and said something about it not having any words I didn’t already know in preschool, but I was like eleven.)

    If I wasn’t reading, I was daydreaming. Telling stories inside my brain easily turned into trying to tell stories on paper — until I was 16, and got a kind of nasty rejection from TSR. (I don’t think they knew I was 16.) I was devastated for years, and didn’t try to write anything until I was 20, and, even then, not terribly seriously — not to completion, at least. About two years ago, I started taking it more seriously, actually completing a few short stories and sending them out, taking some workshops, researching online. It’s all certainly more fun when I finish things… 🙂

  32. Nandini Avatar

    I, too, found most of the content in the article alien because it focuses on the American school system.

    I was born and raised in India, where children go to school from a very early age; I was 3 when I started pre-kindergarten. In some states in India, they start at *2*, so that first-graders are five years old. These early-education states continually produce the best engineers, mathematicians and linguists. So though I appreciate the idea that learning should be organic and informal, I cannot agree with it.

    In fact, I think it has to do with culture, and how education is viewed in a particular society. Take the example of socialising in school. High schoolers in USA often act as if this is their primary concern in life, which certainly makes for a much more relaxed school life here than in India. There, socialisation is left mostly to after-school hours, because in school, the competition to learn the most and be the best takes precedence over everything. Every kid in Indian schools either is a nerd or wants to be as smart as one. You’d find these children less socially sophisticated than the average American high schooler, but the way they see it in India is: you’ve got the rest of your life to socialise, but now is the only time you can get an education.

    That’s my thesis anyhow. 🙂

    I started reading when I was six. I’d only ever read comics before (Superman and The Phantom etc), and my mom had to cajole me and trick me into reading one of the Famous Five books by Enid Blyton. By the time I’d finished the first chapter, I was hooked. I spent the next four years reading the same sort of stuff: Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, the Three Investigators. After that it was Agatha Christies and Earl Stanley Gardners for a couple of years.. and then Sidney Sheldon, Arthur Hailey, Robert Ludlum and all the thriller writers. I still follow the pattern of discovering a new genre and the corresponding new set of writers every two-three years.

    I began to want to write when I was 10, right at the end of the teen-detectives stage and at the beginning of my interest in classic English mysteries. My best friend and I scavenged the unused sheets of paper at the end of the previous academic year’s notebooks, had them all bound up into a mismatched book, and began to write our own Famous Five-style novel. We started off with Indian
    characters, but I had a vague idea that it wasn’t very ‘realistic’ to do that, so we Anglicised everybody’s names about two chapters in. My friend drew the treasure map, I came up with the villains and their nefarious plans. I don’t think we got to the end of the story, but we ran out of paper so we just stopped writing.

  33. BJSteeves Avatar

    I never knew why I hated school, I always resented why I had to learn “it” their way, but not mine.

    So I became a reader, reading high school and college level material even in the 4 to 6 grades, since I could get what I wanted to learn from the “system”. I still do better learning most things on my own, over any kind of formal training.

    My school mark average was never better than a “C” average, which kept me out of attending college. So I read. I read a lot, and at an average of 800 words per minute, but I can push to 2400 words a minute if necessary. I know, because I was tested for reading speed by one of my employers.

    I buy books in packs or 10 or more, and will have all of them completed in less than two weeks. (Yes Holly, that includes ALL of your books).

    So I am trying my hand with writing my own. Some day, I hope to see one of my stories on the book shelves.

  34. arrvee Avatar

    I first learned to “read” when I was about 3 by memorizing the books my mother read to me and reciting them back to her, even turning the pages at the right time. I really learned to read when I was 4 and have not slowed down since.

    By the time I hit elementary school, my parents had already instilled in me a self-reliant attitude. Coupled with a natural bull-headedness, that made my educational career quite adventurous. Very early on, I developed the habit of reading the entire textbook and assigned reading within the first couple of weeks of class. I drove my teachers crazy by refusing to do homework and still acing the tests. Lots of report card comments about that.

    I managed to make it all the way through graduate school without caving in to the pressure to conform, with the help of a couple of really great maverick teachers along the way. I saw way too many of my friends become good little drones along the way. I still get mad thinking about it.

    I have always written in my head, spinning stories and acting out scenes mentally when I was supposed to be doing something else. Some of them I wrote down, realized how bad they were, and trashed them. I only came out of the closet as a writer about 5 years ago and got serious about learning and practicing the craft while exploring my art. Having a blast, too.

  35. Holly Avatar

    Heather–I’ll get to how I became a reader and a writer. I’d like to have other folks have a chance to tell their stories first.

  36. Holly Avatar

    Angelique — John Taylor Gatto taught in the New York Public School system for 30 years, was the New York City Teacher of the Year and New York State Teacher of the Year in 1990, and has been an activist against the current educational system since leaving teaching while still NY State Teacher of the Year. His credentials both inside the educational system and outside of it are impeccable. If he can be said to have a bias against schools, he earned it the same way I earned my bias against the current state of medicine–by working hands on with it every day and seeing the damage it does, and through research and hard work finding out that there are better ways.

    You can read a short biography about him, and find out more of what he’s said on the rest of his website.

  37. Angelique Avatar

    The person who wrote this article is amazingly well versed and obviously passionate about the topic. I too feel that schools have a myriad of issues above and beyond what the public is privy to, I just wonder how much bias should be taken into consideration when reading this piece about it. I fortunately did not have this experience, though it may have been that I had the love of reading prior to entering school. Who knows?
    My reading and writing story: My grandparents often bought me the books as a child that had a cassette tape with them. You all know the kind; the ones that went ‘ding!’ and you had to turn the page etc. Anyway, I loved them, especially one called ‘Herself the Elf’, and learned to recognize words through following along over and over and over again with that particular book and others. There began my love of books and I never stopped reading. I remember writing my first stories in 3rd grade when a story teller named Tom McCabe came to our school and initiated a creative writing challenge to the younger grades. We received stars for every completed story and when he returned, the students from each class that wrote the most stories were given prizes. Like some of the others here, I wrote for years following and then gave it up during college only to return to it later. Even when I wasn’t writing the desire never left me, I was thinking about it, wanting to do it the whole time. It just took the “apply butt to chair” factor anf a whole lot of courage to get me going again 🙂

  38. Chrysoula Avatar

    I don’t remember learning to read. But I know in the first grade, there was a reading contest. I wasn’t interested in it until I got annoyed by the little red-haired girl, Tiffany. She was doing best at the contest. I had to beat her.

    I did.

    As for writing… I think my first writing came about when I didn’t like the way stories (or movies) went. It was a natural outgrowth of daydreaming. I daydreamed a lot.

    After reading that article, I think I was incredibly well-served by being both bright and a hidden ‘victim’ of ADD (undiagnosed until college). Most of what I remember of my early schooling is ignoring whatever the teacher was going on about, or fixating on one small item mentioned and obsessing over it. Go go hyperfocus.

  39. shelbi Avatar

    This is my first time posting here, but I’ve been reading your blog [and novels] for about a year now. I started out telling my story here, but it got way too long, so I, too, blogged about it. You can read it here.

  40. Breece Avatar

    Ouch — this think bomb made my skull thump. Thanks for the food for thought and the intriguing article. 🙂

  41. Luminessence Avatar

    John Taylor Gatto is great. My mother used to read him and John Holt. I was homeschooled for the second half of my school career (from the middle of sixth grade on).

    School certainly didn’t nurture my love of reading and writing. In fact, one of the reasons my parents took me out of school was so I could spend more time on my writing. School wasn’t even a place for learning, really; I was a smart child, and I think most of my teachers wished I wasn’t. They didn’t want to deal with a smart kid; it meant more work for them. They wanted everyone to learn on the same schedule – not too slow, and not too fast.

    Both my parents were book lovers, and so I grew up around books. My parents read to me, and I also made my mother read to me incessantly. I learned to read when I was four. I’m not sure how I learned; I just absorbed it somehow. I was a bookworm all along. I hated what we had to read in school, though. I used to wonder how, with all the fascinating stories there were out there, the people who compiled the stories for the school reading books managed to find the most boring stories in existence. If I had learned to read in school, instead of learning to love books before I set foot in a school, I could have wound up hating it too.

    As for writing, maybe it was my constant immersion in books that made me start writing. It just seemed like something I would naturally do. When I was six I started a novel about Scooby-Doo. I never finished it – even then, I had a problem with finishing writing projects – but I kept writing other things. But school did nothing to encourage my writing. (I had several bad writing experiences in school, though… like the third-grade teacher who tried to convince me that “awfully” was spelled “awfulley”…)

  42. Deathbyabsurdity Avatar

    Holly, now that you are getting some responses, I’d like to hear your story. But, maybe that’s just me.


  43. tambo Avatar

    I have always read. I read whole chapter books all by myself at age three. Got my first library card at 7 or 8 with full adult privledges. Ruined my eyes at 12 reading by the streetlight coming through my bedroom window because my folks turned off my light.

    And, I’ve pretty much always written. My first whole story (that we still have proof of) was in the 4th grade, when I was nine.

    As for school, I loved it, just sucked it up like a sponge. I was lucky, tho, I was almost immediately placed in TAG (Talented and Gifted) so I wasn’t quite as subject to the rigid programming most kids faced. I still love school, loved college… I’d go back in a minute if we could afford it.

    Except middle school. I hated that.

    My daughter is public schooled. We’re not happy with everything about it, but without it she’d be an antisocial hermit like her mother. Her dad and I have tried to teach her to think for herself and not just spew back the pr-approved answer. Not long ago she had a test over an assigned book with questions like “Why did so-and-so do such and such?”

    She gave her opinion, and got an F. We explained that schools don’t want to know your opinion, they just want you to regurgitate. So the next test she regurgitated and got an A, but came home and explained why SHE thought the character did what they did.

    Playing the game when you know it’s a pile of BS is a bit different than swallowing the BS whole. I think she’ll be just fine.

  44. Chassit Avatar

    Okay, before I tell how I became interested in reading and writing:

    Public schools, at least where I live, are squashing creativity, even now. Instead of telling kids how to improve their own writing for essays, they are telling them the way they should write it. They should use “this” vocabulary, they should use “this” grammer…they even have a sectioned off tell this here, tell this here, tell this here, etc.

    Now, I got interested in reading before school. My mom and my grandma read to me before I went to bed. After we learned to read silently (although now that I look back, how can you not know how to read silently) my teacher in the 2nd grade told us to read after every assignment, whenever we had spare time. I started making little one page stories with illistrations. Then the same year, we were challenged to write a story, and if it was good enough, we’d get it published. Mine didn’t so I vowed to get better at writing. So there you have it.

  45. Crista Avatar

    I became a reader because since I was a small child, I have had an insatiable curiosity. The teachers at school never satisfied me with their answers or didn’t tell me enough, so I would ask my father or grandfather.

    They never just gave me the answer everytime I asked ‘why?’. Most of the time, they gave me a book and told me to look it up myself. I guess that attitude just stayed with me. If I want to know something, I look it up. If I see something on TV that catches my interest or see something or hear something, I research the hell out of it until I’m satisfied with the answer. Reading came out of that because I wanted more and more knowledge.

    I became a writer because I loved reading and wanted to create stories like the ones that I loved.

  46. arainsb123 Avatar

    My first year in high school originally silenced me, as well. I was … I wouldn’t say afraid, but definitely anxious, about speaking up, even as I recognized that I’d been much more talkative last year and that something was wrong about my newfound silence.

    I’m back to being outspoken, but high school has definitely been an exercise in conformity so far.

  47. Sleepycat Avatar

    The article is deeply disturbing to me. I’ve been interested in being an elementary school teacher for years. Some of my fondest memories are of my fourth grade teacher, and I would love to be like her.

    Two points, then your questions:

    1) Before I went to public school, I was talkative and friendly. From the age of two I would go up to kids on the playground, introduce myself, and ask, “Wanna play?” After a year in kindergarten, I was almost silent. I don’t know why. But it took me half a decade to begin reversing the process.

    2) I submit my humble and unresearched opinion that universities are do more to squelch free thought than elementary schools. My university is the most oppressive intellectual environment I have ever encountered, hostile too. The creative classes I’ve taken (fiction writing and many art classes) are about the generation of acceptable ideas, not ideas that most interest you.

    Now, as to how I learned to read and write: My father tried to teach me at home when I was four, but I refused to learn much more than my name (I don’t know why). Eventually I learned in kindergarten and first grade at the same time as I learned to write, whereupon I started writing my own little books. After I began learning to write at school, I allowed my father to do exercises with me. He would write down a word (“TREE” maybe) and I would draw it to let him know I understood it.

    My boyfriend and I have already decided that when we have children we’ll try enrolling them in public school, but if it seems problematic we will whisk them out right away and I will teach them at home.

  48. wolverine Avatar

    A lot of that article I didn’t quite understand, partly because it’s American-focused, partly because I think it’ll take time to understand it fully. I’ll have to go bcak and read it again.

    As to why I became a reader. I don’t remember this, but I’m assured by my parents that I was reading before I started school. I clearly remember learning letters, so I can’t really work out how that all makes sense, but I apparently did. I do know that I was reading a lot, and often harder books than my classmates. The only specific example I can remember is ‘The Secret Garden’, the full version (thicker than an inch, although I’m not sure how large the type is). It took me a month to read when I was 10.

    It’s just continued. I always liked the worlds and characters in books, they made me feel that something more than just this life is possible. They felt real to me, like friends, and I had few enough — in primary school especially — that I felt the addition strongly. Now, I’m better in that respect, but I always buy books whenever I can afford them, or borrow them from the library otherwise.

    Writing, well. I started writing when I was little and it’s also just continued. My first real story (that I can remember) was about 20-30 handwritten pages about a dog called Silky. Even with that one, I was thinking in terms of chapters and sequels and books. (Sadly, I don’t know where it’s gone.) I stopped writing for a while due to things happening in my life, but picked it back up again about 3-4 years ago and have been much happier for it.

    So, yeah, probably a typical story, but that’s the way it is. Both writing and reading contribute greatly to my life, and that’s the way I like it.


  49. KatFeete Avatar

    My response also ran to the long, so I’ve put it up on my blog as well.

    Thanks for the article. It reinforces my determination to never, ever send my kids to public school.

  50. Deathbyabsurdity Avatar

    Depressing, but an answer. Why I Read.

    Just remember, you asked. lol


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