The Bad Habits of Good Readers by Carol Jago

Time for confession. While applauding the model of teachers as master readers and students as apprentices, it seems to me that before we recommend that students should become just like us, we would do well to examine what compulsive readers actually do. In my experience, avid readers often:

1. Value speed over reflection. Such readers seldom pause between books to think about what they have read. They reach for the next one with hardly an intake of breath.

2. Skip anything they find boring. Unlike inexpert readers, these “master” readers feel free to jump past anything that interrupts the flow of a story. They skim descriptive passages and skip altogether imbedded poetry or quotations (for example the medieval tale within Edgar Allan Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher.”).

3. Care more about their personal reading than assigned reading. I have known many who perform very poorly in high school, preferring to prop a book inside their textbooks and simply read their way through the school day. I know because I was one of these students, at least in Geometry.

4. Declare a text they don’t care for as “BORING” with great authority. This can be very disruptive in the classroom when other students who have hardly read a word of Tale of Two Cities garner support in their antipathy for Dickens from a student who finished the whole novel over the weekend.

5. Can be poor writers and careless spellers. In their desire to get back to their book, these readers often rush through writing assignments. Wide reading has given them knowledge of many things, and so avid readers can often dash something off that passes muster, but these students are reluctant to spend the kind of time revising that would actually make the quality of their writing equal to the quality of their thinking.

6. Sometimes get stuck reading one particular kind of book for a very long time. As Lynne Sharon Schwartz writes in Ruined by Reading, “read every novel by Jean Rhys and Barbara Pym as soon as I could get my hands on them. It was like eating candy — the chocolate-covered nuts of the cinema or the celebrated potato chips of which you can’t eat just one. The variations in their novels were in fact no more than the slightly different planes and convolutions in each potato chip, and each one predictably tasty. I became an expert in self-indulgence” (103).

While avid readers are able to meet the reading standards described in almost any state document and often achieve at the highest levels on standardized tests, I believe that with guidance they can be helped to become more thoughtful readers.

I recall my own first reading of Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. As usual I had barreled through the novel at breakneck speed and went to my book club meeting wondering what all the fuss was about. Fortunately I didn’t make a fool of myself (as I might have done at sixteen) by declaring the book “BORING.” Instead I kept my mouth shut and listened to what other readers had to say. It began to dawn on me as they spoke with such insight of Janie Crawford’s travels being a classic hero’s journey that in my race through the book I had missed a quite a lot. In fact, it seemed that I had missed it all.

The best thing about being an avid reader is that going back to reread a book isn’t a problem. I don’t exactly know how, but constant readers always seem to find time where others find none.

Carol Jago has taught middle and high school English for 32 years and is associate director of the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA. She is past president of the National Council of Teachers of English and has recently been named to serve on the National Assessment Governing Board.