Friday, October 11, 2013

How to Train a Discerning Reader: 7 Quick Takes (Volume V)

(Illustrated almost entirely with
pictures of discerning cats)


“Teach and Release” (in appropriate stages)

It is easy enough to say, “Just make sure your child is a discerning reader, and then he can pick out his own library books.” 

However, how does one actually take a small, peanut-butter smeared child and turn her into a reader who can safely navigate the whirlpool of ideas in the YA section? How does one teach someone to enjoy and yet also evaluate stories that have been artfully arranged in order to influence her emotions, perceptions, and beliefs?

Reading critically is not an isolated skill that can slapped on like a bicycle helmet. It is part of a reader’s approach to life, books, and truth; and it grows with the reader’s maturity. It requires a teacher who is intentionally preparing students to function independently instead of merely keeping them safe within a homey little bubble.

Here are some factors that I think are important in your child’s relationship with books.

(You can't keep your reader
in a safe box forever)


The Discerning Reader Truly Enjoys Books

Who wants to sit around, sweating and puzzling over the message of a book, unless he thinks that reading is a rewarding activity? Who is willing to admit the flaws of an inferior but entertaining book unless he loves good books?

Children are not parental clones, but their experience at home does provide a model of how life works. The parents who produce readers are the ones who enjoy books, discuss books (with and in front of their kids), and read extensively to their family. Books and learning are part of their family lifestyle.

(It's all about modeling)


The Discerning Reader is Aware that Books are Designed by Authors

Parents model discernment as well as love of reading.

When I was a kid, my dad complained that “Papa Bear” is always the stupid one—the buffoon and comic relief—in Berenstain Bear stories. He pointed this out as an authorial choice (“The people who wrote this book must not have much respect for fathers, because…”). Eventually he refused to read those books to us. This episode contained two important lessons: One, it is an example of the way my parents taught me to be aware that books are written by authors and that a reader might not agree with an author’s beliefs. Two: By refusing to read the books, my dad showed that the authorial ideas in stories really mattered.

The existence of an author may seem obvious, but to a kid it is not. Kids simply accept that Papa Bear is stupid instead of wondering who made him that way. As you read books with your children (whether picture books, chapter books, or novels), provide occasional commentary. If you don’t like the author’s message, explain. “I don’t like the way that in this story, the kids get mad and disobey their mother. Instead of showing that this behavior is wrong, the author makes their disobedience bring about the happy ending. Do you think that is very realistic? Why do you think the author wrote it that way?”

As a child gets older, discuss the fact that the characters are not making moral choices in a vacuum. The context of the story may seem to justify immoral actions (“Katniss had no choice! She had to kill her competitors!”), but the author chose and arranged that context. Ask your child if this authorial choice is valid and realistic, or whether it is an attempt to manipulate the reader into sympathizing with what is wrong.

(This cat is shocked by the moral
choices displayed in his book.
Either that, or he found
grammatical errors)


The Discerning Reader Engages With Books Instead of Consuming Them

Engaging with a book is work. It is like walking uphill instead of down. That’s why the discerning reader needs a reasonably fit and muscular mind.

It is essential to read difficult books. If your child is accustomed to dealing with the archaic vocabulary of old books and comfortable with being unable to understand everything that she reads (whether because of the words, the unfamiliar setting, the historical/scientific references, or simply the many-layered depth of the story), she is keeping her mind fit. She should think that a certain amount of work while reading is normal.

Many contemporary kids’ books, especially genre ones, are designed to pull along reluctant readers. They start with a bang, throw in a cliff-hanger at the end of each chapter, and reiterate all the important info along the way lest the reader forget it. This kind of book doesn’t maintain muscle tone. Even if they are harmless on their own, too many will condition the child to being passively entertained.

Of course, your budding little philosopher needs to continue to like reading. It should remain fun (just like developing physical muscles while playing soccer or climbing trees should be fun). She should be pushing through the hard books because she wants to (and doesn’t know any better, never having been exposed to Goosebumps or too many action adventures).

(I'm not sure if this cat is
engaging, or just consuming)


The Discerning Reader Already Has a Good Sense of Normal

No one can adequately discern human deviance until he recognizes normalcy. Children’s picture books begin this process by giving an image of daily life. Sometimes the effect of books is not what the adults expect. NurtureShock discusses a revealing study: small children who read books about sibling conflict actually treat their siblings worse than they did before reading the books. The children absorb the longer, exciting part of the story (the fights, the name-calling, the slugging) instead of the brief ending about reconciliation. The Berenstain Bears Get in a Fight is funny to older readers who have already formed a sense of what is acceptable and healthy in sibling relationships, but it is counterproductive for the younger readers.  

Teens are also forming their sense of normal. They should not read stories with a glorified, tortured love triangle (Twilight, anyone?) until they understand the Christian approach to romantic relationships and marriage. They should not read about rape until they have a strong understanding of healthy relationships between the sexes. Even once your child is mature enough for mature topics, watch the proportions. Too many books about deviant behaviors may lead them to perceive these behaviors as more typical than they really are. Too many books that (even subtly) oppose the faith, and your child can become accustomed to providing lip service to his Christian values while rooting for characters who oppose them.

Reading books from multiple eras helps. Not only do these books provide true diversity, they can also show which aspects of modern YA fiction are not normal in the wider scheme. 

(I don't think that's normal)


The Discerning Reader Understands Worldviews

“All those liberal non-Christians are wrong” is not much of an education for your child. It requires unthinking obedience and is likely to be cast off once a kid hears more complex discussions from his atheist literature professor. It is important that you teach your child to understand the connections between ideas, and the presuppositions behind beliefs (what do socialists believe about human nature, and how do those beliefs lead to their social goals? Where did their belief in human nature come from?).

Someone who truly understands the world’s major belief systems (whether Christian, secular humanist, Marxist, etc.) will be able to recognize those beliefs in literature even when they are hidden beneath the trappings of a story. As a teenager, I read an earlier edition of David Noebel’s Understanding the Times and found it very helpful. I also highly recommend Dr. Gene Edward Veiths' Reading Between the Lines (especially the first, introductory chapters).  

(With study and observation,
comes revelation)

My own ability to evaluate authors and worldviews followed this rough pattern:

Ages 5-7: I realized that books had authors, and that some authors were bad, so we weren’t allowed to read their stuff (I was a kid—life was pretty black and white).

Ages 8-12: I was uncomfortable if the protagonist manifested behavior, beliefs, or attitudes which were not good. In my mind, if an author did not explicitly condemn something that appeared in a book, the author was claiming that it was OK.

Ages 12-18: As I developed maturity, I was able to see that an author can explore the consequences of an action without advocating it. I was able to recognize certain beliefs (feminism, prejudice against Christianity, socialism, fanatical environmentalism) as they appeared in stories, mostly because I had been taught about those beliefs in other contexts and had seen my parents noting them in simpler books. 

(It's all about discernment.
Don't hand over the reading
wheel too early)


A Semi-Relevant Anecdote

My dad had a lot of opinions about picture books. He would change the stories if he didn’t like them.

He frowned upon one book about a school girl who wanted to win a roller skating championship and attract the notice of a cute boy in her class. In Dad’s version (read aloud to us pre-readers), the characters wistfully longed to be homeschoolers, and, once they were accorded that privilege, suddenly had more time for activities like roller skating. The cute boy was now the girl’s brother. In another book that failed to impress Dad, the little forest animals (laden with food and drink for a feast) were all making their way to the top of a tree in order to salute the new moon. Dad thought this was kind of New-Age. In his version, they were instead on a mission to make peach fuzz grow on everything. The picnic beverages became a special lotion that they applied to the tree trunk to make it fuzzy. You may imagine how surprised we girls were when Mom read us the real story the next day. We tried to get the peach fuzz story again from Dad—it was admittedly much more interesting—but he couldn’t remember all the words.

I guess the moral of the story is that Dad was modeling how to engage with a story and reject the parts that don’t measure up.

(This counts as a cat picture, because Hobbes is a tiger)


Is this too long to be called a series of "Quick Takes?" Either way, I'm linking up with Conversion Diary. Head over there for other posts that probably ARE quick.

Also Linking up with:

“Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books.” 
Mary Ann Shaffer in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society


  1. This is a wonderful post! An excellent summary of how we can bring up our children with purpose and intention when it comes to the books and reading material they are exposed to.
    (stopping by from Fellowship Friday)

  2. I love this. And I remember my dad doing similar things with children's books! There's one that he changes every single time he reads it-- it gets more ridiculous every time :)

    1. Also I LOVE your blog. On basically every post I could write a comment saying "yay, I agree and this is awesome!" :)

    2. That's funny about the ever-changing book. I can't wait to see my dad read to his grandchild-- who knows WHAT will happen in the stories.

      And thanks-- I'm so glad you like my posts! :-)

  3. Thanks for this. I was in Stage 2 (ages 8-12) for waaaay longer than is normal, like up until I'd been homeschooling my own children for many years. I'd forgotten that that stage has a normal healthy place and I wasn't being respectful of my 10yod's strongly emotional reaction to certain characters' actions.

    1. Yeah, teaching critical reading without making someone too critical (or without pushing them into too much acceptance) is a really tricky task.

  4. Yay for kitty pics! Yay for Calvin and Hobbes!

  5. Enjoyed reading your post--so many good points for assisting children to become critical readers! I especially liked the section on developing a sense of normal. Children need to have a good grasp of normal healthy behavior before they are exposed to unhealthy behavior. I have been thinking about the importance of children developing a healthy view of sexuality before they are exposed to all the unnatural sexuality that is present in our culture.

    1. Definitely! It's a challenge to provide healthy information at age-appropriate times, yet still be "ahead" of what the child will hear from the general culture.

  6. Oh my, your dad sounds like my husband! His version of Cinderella was hilarious the other day. And we're also fans of Veith and Noebel. Great thoughts! Found you on the Trivium Tuesday link-up. :)

    1. Thanks for coming over! Too bad I didn't get to hear that rendition of Cinderella.

  7. What a great topic! I definitely want to train my children to be discerning. I've definitely changed a few lines in stories before, but I haven't changed the story entirely =) I don't think I'm creative enough for that ha!

  8. I'm guilty of changing up stories if I don't like them too :). Good tips here. Pinned!


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