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The Benefits of Challenging Books

One of the trickiest parts of being an educator is finding reading materials that are suitable for students. You would think this would not be difficult; in a perfect world, it should be as simple as, “My class is made up of 12-13 year olds; therefore, I will assign readings that specifically say they are for 12-13 year olds.” If only it were so simple! The complexities are legion, including:

Texts not suitably classified. It is extremely common for curriculum material to be, shall we say, not optimally classified? What I mean is that the publisher will advertise a book for 5th grade, but in reality is it too advanced for most 5th graders. Or, conversely, materials marketed to 3rd grade would e better suited to 1st grade. Curricula publishers often “guesstimate” what ages their materials are suitable for—a guess often informed by marketing strategy as much as pedagogy. The result is curricula that can feel “off” relative to age they are marketed for.

Diverse Levels of Development. Saying a book is suitable for 7th grade implies there is a uniform place all 7th graders should be at. This is a carry-over from the public school, where there are universal standards established for every grade level. The reality, however, is that learners are always on a spectrum at any given time. Give me a class of 12 year olds and it will inevitably have some students who read extremely well, some who struggle, and many somewhere in between. What constitutes a “7th-grade reading level” still has a great degree of variability.

Learning Disabilities. The landscape is further complicated having to factor in students with learning disabilities. Dyslexia, dysgraphia, and problems with motor skills can all impair students’ ability to engage with a text. In addition to this, spectrum disorders such as autism and Asperger’s syndrome, as well as other conditions such as ADHD/ADD, make it increasingly difficult to find suitable reading material.

Boring Materials. Even if I did find a book that was spot on for my age group, there was a strong likelihood it would be boring: written blandly, no illustrations, fonts too small, or any number of problems that made them difficult to engage with.

These factors made it almost impossible for me to assign reading material that was going to be universally accessible to all students. Though not dealing with a full classroom, homeschooling families can certainly encounter these problems as well.

What is the best solution?

Over time, I stopped worrying about finding the “perfect text”; in fact, I came to see that it is okay to assign students readings that they struggle with. Of course, I do not want a reading to be totally incomprehensible. But it is alright if the student has to “wrestle” with the text to get something out of it. There are several benefits to having kids read challenging texts:

Gives The Brain a Workout. In the gym, we grow our muscles by subjecting them to strain during exercise. The resultant hypertrophy builds our muscle mass. Similarly, grappling with a text that is a little bit over our heads helps grow our mind. It introduces new vocabulary, new ideas, and challenges the reader to engage with the writing in new ways. The student may not “get” everything they are reading, just like I might not hit all my goals for dead lifts. But progress will certainly be made, and that is more important.

Builds a Foundation for Life. When I was 16 my high school teacher forced us to read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I don’t remember being particularly impressed by it, and I think much of it was lost on me. However, it laid a foundation in my mind. Later, when I was in my later twenties, I revisited the book again. My familiarity with it made it easier to understand, and I got a lot more out of it. I came away thinking, “This book is much better than I remember.” I read the book a third time, now at age 42, and drew immense riches from it, now thinking, “Wow this is a fantastic book.” I would likely not have had such an enriching experience had I not been forced to read it as a youth, despite the fact that much of it was lost on me back then. It nevertheless built a solid literary foundation that continued to benefit me over the years.

Encourages Inquiry. When I knowingly assign my students something that will be challenging, I anticipate, “Mr. Campbell, I don’t get this,” sort of questions. That questioning is part of the process as well. It affords me the opportunity, as an educator, to walk the student through the text and show them how to understand what they are reading. It becomes a learning moment and encourages inquiry.

So, yes, I assign historical and literary readings in full knowledge that many students will feel challenged by them. But that’s fine. There is no success in physical fitness without labor, and there is no intellectual growth without challenge.

A few practical pointers

A text that is challenging is good, but it needs to be challenging within reason. Within reason means it can be a little bit over the student’s head, but not much. It needs to be attainable. Again, think about the gym. If I am regularly deadlifting 175 pounds, then trying to up it to 190 is a reasonable challenge. It’s reasonable because it is not too far off from what I am already doing, but it is still enough to require additional exertion. However, if I were to try to go from 175 to 320 pounds this would be entirely unreasonable. The gap between where I am and where I need to be is too great. So choose texts that are challenging, but not defeating.

Also, there are certain subjects where this works better than others. It is not advisable for courses like math or science, where foundational information must be digested in a rigorously logical sequence. It is much better suited to the humanities, where we are dealing with qualitative concepts, not quantitative reasoning. It is uniquely suited to literature, a discipline where the same text can yield various levels of meaning.

Furthermore, you don’t want to intentionally assign books that are boring or obtuse. There are a lot of awful texts out there and I would never intentionally impose them upon students. You don’t want a text that is challenging because it is boring. Rather, you want something that is challenging because it is slightly above their reading level, but is still a good text in its own right.

Finally, if you are dealing with children who already have difficulty reading, even “normal” texts are going to be challenging. These students likely don’t need any additional rigor added to what they are already doing.

There are no “perfect texts,” but sometimes the imperfection of a book can turn out to be a strength, depending on how we look at it. My students often come back years later and tell me they are thankful I forced them to read some challenging historical document. Even if they did not like it at the time, they come to recognize the academic value in being stretched by having to wrestle with these texts.

Good luck, and happy reading!

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