Embarrassed to Read by Donalyn Miller

A recent National Literacy Trust report found that 17% of children surveyed would be embarrassed if their friends saw them reading.  According to a dictionary, “Embarrassment is an emotional state of intense discomfort with oneself, experienced upon having a socially unacceptable act or condition witnessed by or revealed to others.” Embarrassment is tied to our need for social acceptance. If you have ever chased a naked toddler, you know that children aren’t born with an understanding of socially acceptable behaviors and must learn them from people who understand society’s rules.

So, where do children learn that reading is embarrassing?

Children receive the message that reading a lot isn’t cool from adults. When parents don’t model reading, teachers consider reading a school job, and communities and schools close or defund libraries—we communicate to children that reading isn’t important.

In modern society, children’s future success depends on their acquisition of literacy skills. Children must learn to read and write in order to achieve an education and perform job and life functions that require accessing and communicating information. Possession of fundamental literacy falls within our social norms. There seems to be a line, however, between reading well enough and reading as a leisure pursuit. It’s OK for children to read when called upon, but if they would rather read than watch TV or play outside, they are social outliers.

I fight this perception that reading is nerdy with my students every year. I make it my mission to entice the most popular kids with great books and positive reading experiences because I know that if I can show them that reading is cool, other kids will want to read, too.

As adults, those of us who love books and reading often gravitate toward other readers. We join a reading tribe like Nerdy Book Club or find a career that supports our passion. If we want children to read more, we must provide them with classrooms, libraries, and homes where enjoying reading is a social norm.

If cultural acceptance includes reading, then children will read. If reading isn’t valued, they won’t. Why would anyone read if they receive overt and implied messages that reading is weird? Reading shouldn’t be an extraordinary act performed by a bookish few who stand outside of mainstream culture. Reading should be as ordinary as bread.

When we promote books to children and share our reading lives with them, we offer more than another great book recommendation—we invite children into a society where reading and readers are valued. Society benefits when more people read, but we have to show children that our culture values it.

People who read avidly as adults do so because we enjoy it. Along with everything else children must learn about how to read, we can’t overlook the importance of teaching them why we read when society doesn’t demand that we read much at all.

Donalyn Miller is a fourth grade teacher at Peterson Elementary in Fort Worth, TX. She is the author of The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child. Donalyn co-hosts the monthly Twitter chat, #titletalk (with Nerdy co-founder, Colby Sharp), and facilitates the Twitter reading initiative, #bookaday.