For the next few Friday mornings, you will find me in a classroom at Marfa Elementary School reading The Wind in the Willows aloud to a group of Mrs. Lujan’s second graders. I will be there because I am participating in a pilot project ginned up by Jenny Moore, the director of the Chinati Foundation, Oscar Aguero, the principal of Marfa Elementary, and Andy Peters, Marfa superintendent of schools, to introduce children from pre-kindergarten through the third grade to the joys of reading and to the wider world that books can bring them.
I volunteered for this program because in February I was at a meeting of the Philosophical Society of Texas that was devoted to a two-day discussion of all aspects of the subject of education from elementary through post-graduate. The one fact that I took away from the meeting was that if children are not reading at the third-grade level by the time they are in the third grade, they have a very slim chance of graduating from high school and an even slimmer chance of graduating from college, but they have a whopping big chance of ending up in prison.
In Texas, over the past five years, about 25 percent of all third-graders have not been reading at third-grade level according to the Texas Education Agency.
So many of our problems with schools seem insoluble. When you begin investigating them, they look like the Thomas Nast cartoon of politicians standing in a circle each pointing the finger of blame at the one next to him. Improving children’s reading skills by instilling a love of books in them before they reach the third grade seems a reachable goal to me if teachers, administrators, parents and concerned citizens concentrate enough energy on it.
The payoff is so much greater than the energy required to achieve it that it would appear to be a no-brainer. As the old saw says, the more you read the more you know; the more you know the smarter you grow. Books can open whole new worlds of adventure and experiences to children, can introduce them to ideas they might never encounter at home and can build their vocabularies so they master other skills. All of these arguments for the benefits of reading are cogently made in a book that all of us volunteers were encouraged to read, Jim Trelease’s The Read-Aloud Handbook (Penguin Books, 2013).
Children have a listening comprehension level far above their reading comprehension level. In other words, they can understand the meaning of books read aloud to them that they are not ready to read themselves. My father read Treasure Island to me when I was three, and I still retain the terrifying image I formed from listening to him read of blind Pew tapping his way with his cane across the bridge that young Jim Hawkins was hiding under, and I can still recall Stevenson’s description of the island of Hispaniola looking on a map like a fat dragon lying on its back.
My own early reading, from the age of five or so on, confirmed Trealease’s theories. I learned about China from Ping, a book about a duck who lived on a fishing sampan in the Yangtze River, and about Boston from Make Way for Ducklings, about a family of ducks who lived on the Boston Common. All of my early reading was not about ducks. There was Augustus Helps the Army, which alerted me to the danger of Nazi saboteurs, and Many Moons from which I learned about the duties of court astronomers.
Because I was read to as a very young child, I zipped through the standard children’s books of the early 1940s pretty fast. By the time I was seven, I was reading adult books. When I started the third grade we were given a list of books and told to select one, read it and make a book report. I told the teacher I had read a book over the summer and would like to report on that rather than one of the books on the list. She said fine, and a week later I read the class a report on a Napoleonic War memoir called The Adventures of General Marbot, which I had found in my father’s library. The teacher made me bring a note from my mother saying that I had actually read it.
Two weeks ago I read my second graders a short book by Barbara Cooney called Miss Rumphius. It was about a little girl whose grandfather carved figureheads for sailing ships and cigar store Indians and who grew up to travel to the tropics and drink the milk from coconuts. I purposely chose a book set in places the children were not familiar with. I could feel their minds expanding as they listened; they were fascinated by the figureheads and cigar store Indians and especially by the coconuts, which they saw in every illustration, even when they were actually a ball of yarn or a basket of apples.
Last Friday I started them on The Wind in the Willows. I can’t wait to see what they make of Mole, Rat, Otter, Badger, and Toad and his motorcar. One thing I am certain of: these children I am reading to will graduate from high school and probably will all get scholarships to college.
by Lonn Taylor
Lonn Taylor is a historian who lives in Fort Davis, Texas and writes columns about Texas history for the Marfa Big Bend Sentinel and Texas Monthly magazine. For 20 years, Taylor served as a historian at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. He lived in Round Top from 1970 to 1977 when he was director of the Winedale Historical Center. This piece was originally published in the Marfa Big Bend Sentinel on April 7, 2016.