The gift of reading: give it to your kids [Commentary]

Now that the school year has begun, we have many questions: Is the new Core Curriculum good or bad? What about "No Child Left Behind"? How many remedial courses should a college student be allowed to take? Letter grades versus pass/fail? The questions and ensuing discussions are endless.

But what about reading?

If every first grader learned to read — to read well — I believe we would see many more successful students — on all levels, as well as many more successful people as a whole.

Dr. Ben Carson, the former Johns Hopkins pediatric neurosurgeon, credits reading with changing his life. In "Think Big: Unleashing Your Potential for Excellence," he describes how, in fifth grade, his mother, herself then illiterate, insisted that her son read two books from the library every week. And then he had to write a book report on each for her to "read."

He began reading about animals, about nature, about people, about history, about other countries. And he became the smartest person in his class, he recounts, looked up to by students and teachers alike. "Reading is the way out of ignorance," Dr. Carson writes, "and the road to achievement."

The young Pakistani activist, Malala Yousafzai, who was attacked brutally by the Taliban for promoting education, especially for girls, claims "books can capture injustices in a way that stays with you and makes you want to do something about them."

In my own life, reading has played a major role. My mother, a first-grade teacher, taught me to read before I was four. I still remember my early favorite books: "The Pokey Little Puppy," "The Story of Ferdinand" and "The Story about Ping" — all underdogs (pardon the Pokey Puppy pun) when I think of them now. The puppy had too many siblings, thus not enough food. Ferdinand would rather "smell the flowers" than fight, not a typical bull; and Ping the duck, well, Ping was just too slow.

I like to think that was how I first developed compassion, causing me to become a patient teacher, a caring friend. I went on to major in English in college and then to earn a Ph.D. in English language and literature because I've always loved to read.

What amazes me is how reading has affected not just me but so many others as well. Even with the Internet, myriad television channels, home videos and DVDs, with texting and Twitter, and all the rest of technology, people — the most successful people it could be argued — still make time to read.

One of the most important things parents can do for children is to read to them. It's been proven that avid readers are better speakers, better writers, better comprehenders.

If we gave awards to people who encouraged reading, one would surely go to Oprah Winfrey, whose TV book club and book recommendations have encouraged thousands of adults to read. The other would go to J.K. (Joanne) Rowling, creator of the Harry Potter series, whose work has encouraged millions of children to read as well.

To be sure, reading may be more helpful than Prozac in alleviating stress, an enlightening substitute for travel if one cannot afford to leave home, more rewarding than so many things. There is no dearth of good books and good libraries, especially in Maryland. But we always need more good readers.

Repeated studies have shown that our jails are full of people, mostly young men, who cannot read. Those who can or who learn in prison are better behaved inmates and adjust better to life on the outside.

Indeed, books are powerful and leave lasting impressions; being able to read them is a very special gift.

Lynne Agress, who teaches in the Johns Hopkins Odyssey program, is president of BWB-Business Writing At Its Best, Inc. She is the author of "The Feminine Irony" and of "Working With Words in Business and Legal Writing" (Basic Books). Her e-mail is:

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