Some people love to read. Others don't. Sometimes having students that don't love to read can seem like torture, both to the teacher and to the student who doesn't love to read. But at the end of the day, there are many reasons why students need literature. And as teachers, we can help both the students that love to read and the ones who don't so much learn to recognize the richness that literature brings to life. In turn, those book-haters might just end up loving books more than they ever thought they could!
So, in light of us teachers bringing along all of our students into a love of reading, here is a list of 18 reasons why students need literature.
Table of Contents
1. It Expands Vocabulary and Communication Skills
Okay, I'm going to apologize here. This is probably one of the most boring reasons on the list. I realize the majority of students don't care about the size of their vocabulary or their communication skills. But I guarantee, this is one skill set that they will be so grateful for as adults.
The great news about this boring point is that implementing it into the classroom can be fun! There are tons of great vocabulary games online. A google search will give you more than you can handle. Many times, kids will think of ways to change those games up too, which keeps things fresh in your class. AND letting them use their creativity to tweak those games covers most of the categories of Bloom's Taxonomy--remember, understand, apply, analyze, and create. Here is a link to Bloom's Taxonomy if you would like more information.
Kids also love to talk and be heard. I have had some of the most interesting (and sometimes lengthy) conversations with students who were learning new words. I found it so rewarding to see the light bulb come on. And I could see that they recognized something that they could use to expand their world.
One of the things kids love to do the most is argue. We don't want to directly encourage them to argue. But teaching them vocabulary and communication skills (and adding reasoning skills) will help them to be able to express themselves in healthy ways. That is a win-win for teachers, parents, and students!
2. It Bolsters Their Imagination
Reading a great book can make some kids' imaginations come to life. But for other kids it may not be so magical. That's where an awesome literature program comes in.
Teachers can bring a book to life by helping the kids experience the book instead of just reading it. Finishing a dramatic reading of it (I love listening to recordings of the books with the kids), then discussing what the protagonist(s) and antagonist(s) experienced brings the story line to life. Ask them how they would have handled it if they were involved or if they one of the characters. It puts them right in the middle of the book.
Adding snacks, games, crafts, and even fun worksheets to the lineup immerses the students into the life of the book. It reaches all of their senses. They will see the book as so much more than just a book. They will be disappointed that they have to end with that chapter and excited to come back for the next one.
3. It Teaches Them About Other Cultures
Most kids see life through the very limited life that is happening directly around them. Some kids are fortunate enough to be well traveled and have a wide range of experiences at an early age. However, most of them only get that kind of life experience on a limited basis.
That is what makes this one of the best reasons why students need literature. Great books allow us to bridge that gap for them and experience life through a totally different lens.
Teaching the Difficult Stuff
There are also cultural themes that we would like our students to recognize. But we don't necessarily want them to experience those themes. We want them to empathize with those around the world that struggle, whether it is for health, oppressive laws, or just personal difficulty in navigating life.
Every single culture in the world has downsides that cause its people to struggle. We may not want to go into great detail about these things with younger students. But it is good to talk to students that are old enough to start seeing the intricacies of the world. Even if it is in a limited context, it can do great good for them to recognize.
Using the Proper Perspective
We also want our students to realize that life looks different to everybody. This is especially true when people are from different parts of the world. They should recognize that some people live magical lives they would never be able to imagine in their own world. But even within those magical lives, they still struggle in very real ways.
Teaching them that life looks drastically different for everyone, rich or poor, healthy or sick, is good for them. And teaching them that it is okay to be different than everyone else is a good thing. We can help them realize that it is okay to be happy for someone that has more in life than they do. Hopefully that encourages them to feel blessed about what their life looks like.
We can encourage them to not feel that they need to compare themselves to others. Learning about these things through a book gives kids the perfect way to experience these difficult things. They can learn how to handle them without actually experiencing them.
Examples of Cultural Differences
A great book that falls in this category is The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie. It is a loose autobiography of a young man who grew up on a reservation in Spokane, Washington. It details his struggles to stay there as well as his struggles with identity on choosing to leave.
For a totally different spin on cultural experience, I wholeheartedly recommend Who Was Princess Diana by Ellen Labrecque. It speaks to how she was born into a wealthy family. She grew up to become the most famous princess in the Western World. But yet her life was anything but easy.
She never faced poverty or hardship personally. But she worked with those who were impoverished all around the world. She faced struggles that could arguably be way more difficult than poverty or ill health. Much of the time her struggles were agonizingly difficult.
And this leads us straight to the next reason.
4. They Can Learn Resilience Through the Struggles of Characters
We can impart to kids at a pretty young age that everybody struggles. But we need to teach them a bigger lesson. They can learn that the issue is not necessarily the struggle itself. It is how to get through it that is the most important factor.
Show them ways to fight adversity with dignity and a GOOD fight. Show them that there is almost always a good way and a bad way to fight adversity.
Most people learn this lesson the hard way after many years. What if we could start teaching our kids about this from an early age? They may still choose the harder path over time, but they are at least better equipped to make a choice. This lesson alone could make this one of the top reasons that kids need literature.
This will be one of the students' favorite reasons why they need literature because they will get to see how strong and resilient they can be, even at a young age. Sometimes kids think they are irrelevant and not able to be strong simply because they are not adults. Showing them that they can be strong and respectful and wise even at a young age is a magnificent lesson and one that they will treasure.
5. They Learn to Respect People that Live Different Lives Than Them
This point is also closely related to the third point in this article. But it is actually a valid point for anybody that students encounter, whether in books or in real life, from a different country or local. They can read books about characters and relate to them in positive ways. It doesn't matter if the character being discussed is making decisions that are right or wrong. It also doesn't matter if the character is making a decision that the student doesn't agree with. In fact, that makes for perfect discussion. And that is why this one of the better reasons why students need literature--because this is a lesson they will use constantly the older they get. Learning it now sets them above and beyond the norm and equips them for life.
It is a great opportunity to teach the students how to respect people even if they don't agree with what they are doing. It's also a great opportunity to teach them how to graciously disagree with someone if they are faced with something that is blatantly wrong, and not just a judgment call.
I am not saying that they must respect anybody, regardless of whether they have done some really terrible things. I'm just saying that most people are generally just trying to do what they think is right or best most of the time. Respect and encouragement are great lessons to learn at an early age. But the better lesson is to learn them not just when it's easy, but especially when it is difficult. But only when appropriate! That may be a lesson for another time.
6. It Helps Them to Learn About Empathy
Empathy is similar to respect in that you are walking a mile in someone's shoes. Better understanding their circumstances enables you to relate to them in a better way. Empathy towards the people around us is a critical trait to have. But is is apparently one that can be in short supply these days.
So how do we teach kids that are conditioned to get what they need to stop looking inward and start looking outward toward others?
Dialog is always so important. Asking kids how they feel about someone is probably going to get a very direct answer, especially from younger students. But it gives you a foundation to gently guide their thoughts to stable ground.
It is easy to teach them to empathize with the character that is full of goodness. Their struggle is not from something they did that was bad but facing a trial that seems insurmountable at the moment. Conversation can flow easily when you ask them how they could possibly help someone facing the same trials as the character in the book. You can praise their heartfelt thoughts and even encourage ways to move even further towards helping a struggling person. If they aren't sure how to answer make sure to have thoughts about this beforehand.
Showing empathy to someone who is struggling because of making bad choices (The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton comes to mind here) is a bit more challenging. It is a delicate balance between supporting someone but not supporting the wrongdoing. But what a rewarding lesson it will be! It is something that could very well remain with your students for their whole life.
7. Teaches Them Good vs. Evil
Good vs. evil is everywhere. It is in real life. It's in the Bible. It's in the movies. It is even in the Iliad and Odyssey. Actually, we might be hard pressed to find a place that it is not. Not counting Heaven or Hell.
When kids are very young, they tend to see the good in everything. It is pretty easy to block out evil, especially since their parents are most assuredly doing that for them.
That fact makes this one of the best reasons that students need literature. It is a really good way to introduce them to one of the toughest aspects of life. The best thing about it is that they are learning through situations that they don't have to experience personally. There are so many places that they can see this lesson on a daily basis, but in literature the lessons are definitely bigger and more pronounced. That makes for much better conversation. It also makes kids able to pick up the nuances of good vs. evil more easily down the road.
I already brought up several places that you can use this lesson for kids. It can even come up in casual conversation, which can be the best way to reach kids. But one more really good example that you can use with your students is The Narnia Series for younger grades and Lord of the Rings for older grades. Both series work well in either secular or religious settings.
8. They Can Be Warned of the Consequences of Making Bad Choices
I know that I have already talked about discussion with the students more than any of the other regular stuff that we do in Complete Literature. But really, the bottom line is that no matter what extra special projects we are doing in literature to drive the application home, keeping the lines of communication open is going to be the thing that the kids remember the most.
They will remember the special games, the crafts, the awesome themed snacks, and even the homework assignments that allowed them to be creative and artistic. But what will stand out even more is the fact that the whole time they were doing those things in class you heard them. You listened to them and cared about what they had to say.
So in this next reason that students need literature, I want to talk about how they can be warned about consequences before they get themselves over their heads.
What Making Their Own Choices Looks Like
As time goes on, they will have to make their own choices. And inevitably, they will make the wrong choice. We all do. But talking about the choices that were made in the books they read and evaluating why the characters made the choices they did make for really productive conversation. Then being able to talk through the consequences that the characters ended up facing after the decision is a great way for kids to see cause and effect in action. They learn that everything they do results in a consequence and they can start learning reasoning skills related to that at a pretty early age. Babies are taught very quickly not to touch hot stoves or play in the road. So middle school students can very quickly learn less tactile lessons with some great discussion.
A bonus to this is that you will very much enjoy listening to the kids feelings/thoughts as they work through this real-life exercise.
9. They Can Be Inspired by a Hero/Heroine
Reading a book that features a hero or heroine is probably one of the biggest imagination-generators. Kids instantly start dreaming of themselves being in the battle. Their imagination takes them to partnerships with the hero, being able to help out the hero, taking the hero's place once he is gone, and even being rescued by the hero.
A great conversation to have is how we can all be heroes every day in so many ways. Being proactive about helping people (without being told to!), talking about ways we can make the world a better place, and recognizing people in our own lives that are heroes in their own rights are great ways to help students realize what really makes a hero.
10. They Can Learn Different Solutions to Problems Than They Would Have Thought of
This is one of my favorites, because I can literally see the wheels turning in their heads as they work through this. I love seeing the inspiration in their face when they realize there were even more options than what they had already thought of and they loved those new options.
A perfect way to implement this is in a way that your students will clearly see how their decisions affect what happens next or even down the road. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eustace starts out making all the wrong decisions. His decisions are derived from jealousy and bitterness and meanness. He also hasn't spent much time with other people in order to interact in healthy ways. So when he ends up spending the summer with the Pevensie children and faces life-threatening crazy adventure, he learns pretty quickly that personal responsibility in making good choices is critical. Of course, Eustace goes through some things that no child in your class will ever face. But the concepts remain the same.
Sometimes what seems common sense to us is not to others, especially kids. And if they have not learned good decision-making skills, it will not automatically make sense to them. Younger kids (and sometimes older kids) are not thinking about consequences, but about what they want at the moment.
I am sure that most kids of school age have learned that certain things they do will render certain consequences. But most of them haven't yet learned how even seemingly benign choices can cause a different path in life. Those don't have to be bad--it could change life for the better or worse, and they may not be significant changes. But things do change based on decisions made.
All of this is not to say that we should scare kids into being fearful of choices that would bring them unbearable consequences. But it is a great opportunity to see them understand how life works a bit better. It will equip them to make harder decisions as they get older because they will have had experience already.
11. It Could Inspire Them to Choose a Career/Job Field
Kids spend a lot of time dreaming. Getting them to talk about those thoughts and dreams is even more rewarding than the dreaming. It allows them to collect their thoughts and gain support for their dreams. And an adult who hears them and chooses to encourage them in productive ways is worth even more than the books that got them there.
It's pretty cool to hear stories about people who chose a job field based on a book they read as a child. It is so awesome to hear those stories from people who went on to become doctors, teachers, decorators, engineers, homemakers, or any of a number of great choices.
It would be pretty awesome to hear from older teachers who had the privilege of seeing where their former students ended up and what it was that inspired them to get there.
The next reason why students need literature is tied closely to this one.
12. It Can Help Them to Picture What They Might be Like as Adults
This goes a bit further than inspiration to choose a certain job field. This is a great reason why students need literature because it allows them to see themselves as a whole person. They can apply themselves to whatever aspect of their reading touches them. It can be a character's background, behavior, thoughts, dreams, relationships, location, or literally anything.
We can all think of times that kids came up to us and said, "When I grow up, I'm going to _____." This is the perfect opportunity to hear the aspirations of kids who are thinking about what their future is going to look like. Will it look like what they are thinking at the moment? Probably not, but that doesn't mean that this type of thought isn't greatly productive. And it will still shape their future greatly, even if they can't predict their exact future and it likely won't turn out exactly like they are thinking.
By inserting themselves into an adult character's life, they can actually picture what their life could look like based on their life experiences combined with what they are reading. This is a great way for them to gain knowledge and wisdom without having to go through trials to get there.
Of course, we cannot guarantee that students will grow up to be totally reflective of themselves or choose the right pathways, but equipping them to be able to do so is as far as our job can take us.
13. It Helps Them Learn Ways to be in Better Relationship with Others
Kids can read a book and think about how they would have done things the same or differently than the protagonist. Or maybe there is a character in the background that resonates with them. They could think about how they would handle things if they were that person. Or they could even think about how they would help out that person or encourage them or be a friend to them.
On the flip side, they may read about an antagonist and react positively or negatively to how they would deal with whatever the situation is. In that case, you have two great avenues to guide them. The first is to praise a good decision they made in how they would deal either with the antagonist or the situation if they were the antagonist.
The second is to ask them some questions (non-interrogation style) as to how they came to the decision about how to handle the situation. The questions should be designed to help them form their train of thought in a way that lets them come to their own conclusion. This allows them to come to a better decision. But, even more importantly, it shows them how to guide their own train of thought for future decisions.
The possibilities are endless when kids start thinking about what they have read. And the best time to hear their thoughts is either while they are reading or right after. Their thoughts are fresh and easier for them to communicate during those times.
14. They May Develop a Lifelong Love of Reading
And here I have saved the best one of all for last!
I have had students that came into my class and immediately let me know that they were not fans of reading. My usual response was just to smile at them and let them know that some of my own kids felt the same way. What I didn't tell them was that in the end just about everyone who finds a book that they actually do love will gain a love for reading. Some may just be a little pickier in which books they will read. At the end of the day, literally everyone can tell you about a book they read that was their favorite.
This is where the classroom is at a huge advantage in teaching a love for reading. Teachers have a captive audience, but they also have the ability to craft the literature program to what their current students love to do the most. Incorporating what they love into what they may not love at the moment (reading) could just turn the tide for the rest of their life.
Being paid to teach is a good thing. But almost nothing feels better than seeing a former student years later and hearing them tell you how something you did in that classroom years ago inspired them to change the course of their life, whether in some small or huge way.
I love to hear stories about how this has happened!
For an excellent list of the top ten middle school/young adult books click here.