The First R

Every tutor can appreciate reading

Since pre-calculus, calculus and physics are the subjects I spend most of my time tutoring, it’s not surprising that most of my blog posts are about those fields. In a world that is becoming increasingly influenced by science, it makes perfect sense for me to advocate for STEM literacy.

However, paradoxical as it may sound, science, technology, engineering and mathematics are not what I most want kids to be good at. Old fashioned as it may sound, I still think reading and writing come first. As far as I am concerned, the most important academic skill is the ability to clearly communicate complex thoughts through use of the printed word.

Knowledge may be power but the ability to read is one of the most important ways of acquiring knowledge. Of course, most kids can read by the time they get to the ages at which I tutor them. They are functionally literate but most are only able to read just well enough to get by in school. They can read the material assigned in their English and history classes and what they find in casual Internet browsing but they have a terrible time extracting any information from their technical textbooks.

To most of the math, physics and chemistry students I have met, a textbook is simply a book in which to find questions that a teacher has assigned for homework. The vast majority of the time that a student asks me to explain a concept or the method for solving a problem it is clear that it has never even occurred to them to read the textbook. This is not simply a matter of them being lazy. Often they will have slogged away for hours trying to solve problems but made no progress. Since part of my role is to turn them into independent learners, I always try to draw their attention to the exact places in their books where the techniques they need are thoroughly explained.

Some educators are eager to blame authors, editors, and publishers for producing useless books. While there certainly is room for improvement, the best textbook in the world will be of no value to a student who does not think of using it. The problem is not that kids don’t read enough. They are  eager to read what they find on Facebook and many of them read fiction for recreation. The problem is that most of them do not push themselves to read the more difficult material that, out of necessity, uses more sophisticated vocabulary and sentence structure to accurately convey intricate, abstract ideas. Serious works of physics, chemistry and computer science are definitely not easy reads.

In his latest post, Cal Newport, one of my favourite bloggers, talks about the value of reading difficult material.

“There was a time when intellectual engagement necessarily included long hours reading old-fashioned paper tomes. But in an age when a digital attention economy is ascendant, it’s now possible to satisfy this curiosity without ever consuming more than a couple hundred highly digested and simplified words at a time.”

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