Learning to Read, Reading to Learn

Which child do you think is more likely to become a lifelong learner and love reading until the day he heads up to that big bookstore in the sky?

a)  the child for whom reading is an unending series of tedious worksheets followed by vacuous questions or the form "Which of the following statements would the author be most likely to agree?"

b)  the kid who cuddles up with his dad on the couch and reads "Spider-Man" comics for hours until they get into a raucous squabble about whether the Fantastic Four could have beaten the Avengers so they go out in the backyard and play one-on-one soccer until the ball gets stuck going back and forth between their legs a mile a minute and they both start laughing irrepressibly for no reason to the point where they both fall on the ground howling with the hilarity of it all and the boy says, "It's funny how much fun this is, huh, dad?" and before you tell me that children need to practice for standardized tests because there are college admission exams in their future, let me hasten to remind you that there are unspeakable medical procedures in your future but I don't see you drinking that gallon of horrific pineapple-flavored liquid for "practice" and yes, I am quite aware that this sentence is a run-on, but you take my point.

Because as my grandmother often remarked, "You're a long time dead.

Before we shuffle off this mortal coil, shouldn't we have some connections with our kids?  Some years hence, when you're drooling into your napkin at the assisted living facility, don't you want to be thinking back on the comic books, the one-on-one soccer, and the disputation on Reed Richards versus Tony Stark as the most brilliant inventor in the comic book universe?

Or stated another way, where do the memories come from?

Remember the time your nine-year-old son was exhausted from a long day at school and lacrosse practice and just wanted to cuddle up with you on the couch and hear a made-up story about dinosaurs or astronauts but instead you reminded him that he had worksheets to do for homework?

Nah. Probably not.

The hours spent reading comic books on the couch and the one-on-one soccer games are emblazoned in memory. The worksheets, not so much.

We all want our kids to be able to read. The question is how we help them to acquire the skill. Just like a man who loves his job will never work a day in his life, a child who loves learning will more likely be able to study the requisite 14 hours a day necessary to score well enough on the Medical College Admissions Test to become a doctor. The child who has only been exposed to "passages" who has never chosen a book just for the sheer joy of finding out WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?! Again, not so much.

After 37 years of teaching and counseling kids and parents, I am convinced that an afternoon spent reading that which is intrinsically interesting beats the heck out of not paying any attention to enforced curriculum

You could argue that the kids who love the infinitely intricate plots and wonderfully stable characters of Harry Potter are more likely to be successful in the classroom. I would argue that questions of the form "In line 237, 'vicissitude' most closely means which of the following?" make me want to hurry out behind the band and bury all testing material.

I would replace "three-minute record" in Springsteen's, "we learned more from a three-minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school" with "Spider-man #33." The plots of those comics can lead directly to Jane Austen and Henry Fielding.

And speaking of Spider-man #33, what happened to all those great comic books I read in the 1960s, those great stories to which I attribute my love of all things literary? Lost tragically, I'm afraid. As it happens, I'm trying to recreate my collection for subsequent generations of Altshulers. If you have old Marvel comic books-specifically Spider-Man issues from #1 to #83 (about the time in my life when I moved on to more well known forms of literature,) I would be pleased to purchase them from you. Respond to this email and let's chat.

9 thoughts on “Learning to Read, Reading to Learn

  1. Eric Malter

    David, I enjoyed your post. Unfortunately, I don’t have any Spiderman comics to send your way, but I do have a story to share. In the mid-’60’s, I had a friend in elementary school who had recently lost his dad, who was a commercial artist, in the crash of a light plane. One Sunday, my friend’s mom drove us a few towns away, to Mineola NY, to visit one of her late husband’s colleagues. I remember walking up the stairs in an old Cape Cod style home, and into a small studio with a drawing table, where a nice gentleman was working on a page from a comic book–it was a large sheet of brown paper with frames drawn on it, and figures sketched in each frame in pencil. At the end of our visit, he signed one of the sheets and gave it to me as a keepsake. Unfortunately, when my parents moved from our home years later, that sheet was lost, along with my brother’s extensive comic book and baseball card collections (who knew they would be valuable in those days?), but I remember to this day that the page I had been given as a keepsake was a sketch for an upcoming issue of Spiderman, and the particular page I had been given was introducing a new character called Dr. Octopus. And, of course, I will always remember the nice gentleman who gave it to me, Stan Lee.

    1. David Post author

      Nice, Eric. You don’t even want to know what that piece of paper might be worth today!

      Glad you checked in.

  2. Ellery

    The “what will you remember in the old folks argument,” isn’t very compelling to me, but otherwise I liked it, especially the soccer.

    1. David Post author

      Yeah, that was you and me by the fence in the backyard. You were maybe seven. Such fun. What a hoot. I’m still laughing about it 15 years later. We were laughing so hard we could barely breathe.

  3. Sandy Furth

    I think if I saw a worksheet that stated which statement are you most likely to agree… I’d drain my savings and find a boarding school or home school. And yes, what a great idea for assisted living, comic books. As I visit my 90 year old aunt in a dementia unit, maybe they should be showing old Superman movies from days of yore. I’ll tell what I do have that I will NEVER part with… my Beatles program from their first tour of the US as well as the ticket stub. I know, not a Spiderman comic-but still… a piece of history, right?
    Thank you for the posting.

  4. Cat Jennings

    hey there David,
    I have not forgotten our lunch and conversations about you need for old Spider man comics! I am looking for you all the time…I hope you are well and enjoying what acts as Fall for south Florida, LOL!
    Best, Cat

  5. Martin

    Horrible that you lost your comic book collection! I remember it took up a whole closet, issues carefully protected by plastic enclosures so the silverfish wouldn’t get at them….

    Well, you do stack the deck a bit re those stupid worksheets. I don’t think I ever did any of them (or
    maybe the schools I went to weren’t advanced enough to get us to practice for those SAT questions… had to make do with just reading for enjoyment.

    You remember the laughing incident better than Ellery. He just brings the deep feeling of love and
    affection and the conviction that learning and having fun are worthwhile, not chores.

  6. Mike D

    Good read, I really enjoyed it especially when I saw the Amazing Spiderman “The Final Chapter”.
    I told my wife “hey I have that one”, she laughed of course and said what don’t you have.
    I was little kid with severe asthma, my mom used to take me to Cumberland hospital, in Brooklyn, to get shots and medicine. Because of the sickness I wasn’t allowed to play outside a lot because it would trigger my asthma. So, on one of those hospital visits, on our way to catch a bus to go home, we entered a corner drug store (you know, the ones that had the big Coca Cola cap on the front) my mom took me to the rear of the store where the comics were at and said pick four comics from the metal rack. I was so excited, I chose Spiderman, Fantastic Four, Superman and Captain America. That was the start of my comic collection that kept me happy and engaged during those early years of sickness. Needless to say those comics enhanced my reading and influenced my future, (sheesh Reeds vocabulary made me keep a dictionary always by my side).
    I learned to laugh and tell Jokes even in stressful situations and don’t give up , Spiderman. I learned always do right even when things fail around you, Superman. I learned to be a good soldier in the Army and to love my country regardless of mislead administration, Captain America. And I became a computer tech and I love science, FF4.
    Thanks for your post.
    PS I still have my collection of comics, Ill look for those issues of Spiderman your interested in.

  7. mj

    So true…my 7 year old drives me crazy. Fight to get him to read his “AR” books, but loves reading sports books. Need to find more ‘sports’ AR books (some Spidey books too). Thanks David, will share with my wife the school teacher, I’m sure she agrees.


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