In most schools in the United States, children are taught decoding skills from textbooks. Once the purpose of these textbooks was to teach children to read so that they could start reading “real books”as soon as possible. As usual what was designed to serve people has run amuck. Children are taught decoding skills so they can read harder textbooks and/or nonfiction.Trade book literature – stories – have been pushed to the periphery of reading.
For children affluent enough to have access to books, the emphasis has moved away from stories into acquiring knowledge through nonfiction. While the reading of any book is to be encouraged, fiction gives gifts of inestimable value to children which are not to be found anywhere else in all the world beyond fiction. The premiere gift of fiction is long-range thinking abilities. Nothing, absolutely nothing, trains long-range thinking skills like stories. A young reader – or listener – must keep ideas, a plot, characters, setting, and emotional content in mind from the beginning of the book to the end. This process frequently extends over many days. (This explains the great appeal of series books.The characters and setting are known quantities, and readers can focus on the fun part – the plot. Reading speed will increase in series, however.)
There are also many gifts given by children’s authors and illustrators. These people care about the concerns and sorrows of childhood and can and do teach children that they are not alone and that there is hope. They often teach through laughter – also not medicinal. When children discover that characters feel their same emotions, they frequently respond with love. The first book that any child identifies with and loves, I have dubbed the “AH-HA book.” The reader has crossed a major bridge to significant, life-long literacy thanks to an author. They teach without preaching.
Another gift is empathy. Young people are too smart to read about anti-heroes. They identify with good characters and correctly identify and reject the villains. While identifying with good characters, children learn to understand, and care for the travails of others: and they are quite capable of transferring these insights into reality.
While society is rightfully concerned about dwindling attention spans, an antidote is at hand – fiction.
Any method to get children into fiction is helpful, but the best entrance is one that most of us can enter – reading aloud. People who read aloud, including parents and teachers, freely give all the gifts embodied in fiction and are to be treasured.