While many students are given credit of some sort for reading books during the school year (or completing a summer reading assignment), they are rarely, if ever, given credit for re-reading material. Yet some of the greatest insights into literature can only come about on a second, third, or fourth read. And, some of the students’ most important personal developments can be attributed to the material they loved again and again over the years.
I was an avid reader as a child, and I had my favorite books that, every so often on a trip to the library, I would add to my growing collection of new material. I credit a number of intriguing and engaging science fiction stories to my obtaining a college degree in the sciences and fueling my passion for spaceflight and space exploration. I managed to combine the two by conducting research on the development of plants in zero gravity and in enclosed spaces, as well as by writing lay articles about space-related topics.
Re-reading presents a different intellectual challenge than reading a book for the first and only time. During the first pass, a child tries to grasp the characters, the sequence of events, and how they relate to each other. Upon re-reading, he is able to read more deeply – since he already knows the story, he can focus his attention on picking up clues to the author’s craft. He notices how the book is structured, how events or dialogue that take place in the first chapter don’t become important until later in the book. He sees how the author uses language to foreshadow what’s to come. He understands how the book’s themes play out through the different characters’ actions. From an understanding of how books work, he has a foundation on which to build an understanding of how people and societies work in the real world. He has time to linger and reflect.
It’s also true that if the child re-reads a book years after the first pass, he may have a totally different experience with it. Things that were uninteresting to a 10-year-old might be intriguing to a 14-year-old; he discovers he can use the ideas developed in the story to discover, measure, and know himself. When he realizes that he totally missed out on a key plot point on his first read because he wasn’t interested in what was going on, but now finds that story compelling enough to care, he gains an opportunity to reflect on his own growth. This re-reader discovers that books are living entities; they are subject to interpretation and grow and change as we do. I had that experience reading “Watership Down.” In 7th grade, I couldn’t have cared less about the book and actually never finished it, despite it being a class assignment. Three years later, I picked it up again and found a thoroughly engrossing story with characters that had something to say to me. It was a real eye-opener, and I eventually read it a third time.
Re-reading is also an essential habit for higher-level reading, in the upper grades of high school and in college. While a first read of material, fiction or non-fiction, can be a thought-provoking and analytic experience, a second read always involves some critical thinking: What did the author mean when he said …? How does this plot device connect with the main character’s state of mind? How does this new material build on what came in the earlier chapters?
In our haste to make sure our students read and understand the texts required at every level of education, we often overlook the very important action of giving credit for re-reading material covered in earlier grades, as well as using it as an opportunity for the student to demonstrate his growth. Ask him questions – Did his perception of the book change over time, and if so, how? How has his relationship with the characters changed? What new insights does he have about himself and the world around him? Such critical thinking questions are the basis for a solid education, and they are what will make a reading program a success.
Are you a teacher? A book lover? Please share any thoughts or comments about your own re-reading experience in the comments section below.