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Stretch Reading: Why Reading Hard Stuff Matters

Mar 29, 2017

Stretch Reading: How (and Why!) to Get Through Those Books You Just Do not Like.

A recent bestseller for the Christian youth market had an intriguing title: Do Hard Things. I am a sucker for a bold, audacious title. In any case, I really like the title of that book because it applies to so many things in life whether the particular field is the industry, sports, academics, or even spiritual matters. The applications are endless.

As an English teacher, I occasionally hear from my students, “This book is hard. I don’t like reading it.” This is a comment I receive regardless of grade level or gender. I sometimes hear the response from parents too as an explanation for why a student is not keeping up with the work or for why a pupil does not like to read.

stretch readingI want to reveal something to you that seems like a secret, but it is not. The positive law of the harvest, otherwise known as doing hard things, is applicable in reading. The real fruit in reading comes from reading those things that really stretch us. Developing the mind muscle, the critical thinking faculty, is a direct result of reading deep works, engaging in words and ideas which seem unintelligible or are just a tad beyond our grasp.

Rather than throwing our hands up and the book out, why not take the opportunity to actually relish the difficulty and embrace the effort? Many of us have had the experience of doing some task or chore that seems impossible at the time, but with a little practice and effort, we reach the goal. Is there any better feeling than that which such a victory brings? And the transformation that occurs along the journey is what it is all about. We develop muscle memory; we build up our endurance; we learn that we can.

Frankly, I’ve become inured to the tired retort: “This is hard.” In fact, now I exclaim, “Great! I’m glad it is hard. It means you’re growing and learning! You won’t be the same after you finish! I’m proud of you for persevering and seeing this through! You can do it. Yes, you can!”

So, parents (and students), if you are faced with reading something that you don’t understand or that seems just impossible to finish, consider using these practices during your reading to make the effort more meaningful and beneficial:

  • stretch readingWrite in your book. Mark it up. Draw question marks in it. Highlight those parts that make no sense. Underline those passages that make you gasp in admiration. Use the kinetic learning style and make yourself some notes in the book.
  • Go back and read again. Yes, read again. Your kindergarten teacher made you go back when you made a mistake. If you get to a point that you don’t know what you’re reading, stop and go back to the last point where you weren’t confused. There is no shame in it! I do it all the time, and I hereby give you permission to go back. In fact, it will make you stronger to go back and get clarity. Half of your class or group will not have done it, and they will be confused even if no one admits it. You won’t be. And if you are befuddled, you will at least understand at what point you lost your way.
  • Ask questions. If you are in a discussion group, a reading group, or a class, send your teacher the question or ask it in your small group session. This is where the real learning comes in. If you are not in a group discussing the work, consider obtaining a study guide for the book which may elucidate some of the more challenging points.
  • Think about the why of it. Why is the author including that scene? Why is that the particular word the author uses? It has been my experience that authors are very deliberate creatures who take their words seriously. If they can quibble with an editor over the inclusion or exclusion of a comma, well, each word, phrase, sentence, scene, and chapter is important. Thinking about the why allows you to appreciate the author and his or her special skill and artistry.
  • Use the dictionary. It may seem painfully obvious and a bit cumbersome, but dictionaries exist for our benefit! Authors are in the word business; they like to play with words. It’s their job. Look up that pesky, unknown word when you run into it. I know that seems ridiculously time-consuming and disruptive to do, but how else will your vocabulary grow? How else will you appreciate what the author is doing and saying? The practice of pausing to look it up is one of those “hard things” that will reap huge benefits over time.

The handout provides some of my favorite tools for reading difficult works.

FREE DOWNLOADABLE: The Reading Toolkit

All things come to an end, and the book that you aren’t enjoying right now will ultimately conclude. You can stand it for a little longer. Give yourself a little treat for finishing something you didn’t quite enjoy. Remember, you have stretched those little gray cells in the effort, and you are better for it. Doing hard things is a reward in itself, but a little chocolate doesn’t hurt either! ☺

Adler, Mortimer J. “How to Mark a Book.” The Saturday Review of Literature, 6 July 1940, pp. 11–12. UNZ, “How to Mark a Book” by Mortimer J. Adler, The Saturday Review, Saturday, July 6th, 1940. Accessed 2 Mar. 2017.

Jodi Guerra is an Instructor and Coordinator with Excelsior Classes, a consortium of online teachers dedicated to excellence in online instruction. She has been involved in the education of children and adults serving in public schools, private schools, and corporate America. For the last twenty years, Jodi has worked with homeschool students in private classes, tutoring situations, and in the virtual world of online education. She seeks to make every learning situation fun yet productive. Besides teaching, Jodi loves to read and finds both cooking and sewing to be creative expressions.

The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the author and should not be taken to represent the views of Excelsior Classes, LLC or the consortium of teachers.