Professor Daniel Willingham on Learning to Love Reading

The sources of some emotional attitudes are easy to appreciate. Here’s Oprah Winfrey on reading: ‘Books were my pass to personal freedom. I learned to read at age three, and soon discovered that there was a whole world to conquer that went beyond our farm in Mississippi.’ One source—probably the primary source—of positive reading attitudes is positive reading experiences. This phenomenon is no more complicated than understanding why someone has a positive attitude toward eggplant. You taste it and like it. Oprah tasted the mental journeys reading affords, and loved them.

But we can elaborate a bit on this obvious relationship. Kids who like to read also tend to be strong readers, as measured by standard reading tests. Again, not terribly surprising—we usually like what we’re good at and vice versa. The situation yields a positive feedback loop….

If you’re a good reader, you’re more likely to enjoy a story because reading it doesn’t seem like work. That enjoyment means that you have a better attitude toward reading; that is, you believe that reading is a pleasurable, valuable thing to do. A better attitude means you read more often and more reading makes you better at reading—your decoding gets still more fluent, lexical representations become richer, and your background knowledge increases. We would also predict the inverse to be true: if reading is difficult you won’t enjoy it, you’ll have a negative attitude toward the activity, and you’ll avoid it whenever possible, meaning that you’ll fall still further behind your peers. This cycle has been called ‘The Matthew Effect’ from the biblical verse ‘For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance; but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath’ (Matthew 25-29). Or more briefly, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”

Excerpted from: Willingham, Daniel T. The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2017.

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