With each new crop of college freshmen I teach, I have a finite amount of time to understand them, engage them, and place them on a trajectory for future learning. It’s a near-Herculean task some semesters, especially in classes where I have an especially vocal group who are dead-set on proving to me that they don’t want to be in an English course.

I read them like a parent (for I am one). I see their apathy, manifested in expressions or ill-preparation. I sense their frustrations, especially when grades are involved. Their outright contempt for the subject matter is not something they are shy about sharing.   

They tell me “I don’t read,” and “I don’t write,” with the ease with which someone might say, “I’m going to the gym,” or “We’re out of milk.” It’s not a badge of shame. For some, it’s become routine.

As their professor, I have a duty to go deeper. I can’t hear these statements and ignore them, and debating them is not fruitful. Instead, I try to understand them so that I can help students move past them.

When I ask these students about their disdain for reading and writing, many reply that it has always been there. A negative relationship with literacy is like a long-held habit that they can’t imagine breaking.

Some students are quite open in discussing. When I press, many give me a definitive reason why literacy is not exciting. They are fresh off their teenage years, and for some, engagement with reading material at home and encouragement of writing outside of their classroom environment has never been the norm. Students’ talking points about the lack of a bookish environment vary.

“I didn’t grow up with books in my house.”

“I never went to a public library.”

“Teachers had us practice for standardized tests, so we could never write what we wanted to write.”

These were not my experiences. On the contrary, books were my first friends. The public library was my favorite summertime hangout, and when teachers didn’t let me write what I wanted, I would do so at home.

I understand I cannot change students’ pasts. Instead, through their education as adults, I try to show them how much value there is in literacy. Reading and writing are fundamentals, but I also have to convince students that these two things are skills. “No one is born a good reader or a good writer,” I tell them. I liken these skill sets to others, like learning to ride a bike. Just like that process involves practice, practice, practice, so too do the skills we learn in class.

I ask for their biggest buy-in: the personal desire to improve.

Just as a child who wants to ride a bike can learn, an individual who wants to be a better reader or writer can improve. If there is a willingness to be taught, something positive can unfold. However, little progress can take place with someone who is close-minded against learning a certain skill.

I know this is a tall order to ask of my students. Some are willing. Some are not. It’s the second group for whom I worry.

When students enter my class, their childhoods are behind them. Their teen years, however, are fresh in memory and experience. If I can tap into particular instances of positivity with reading and writing, then I have a chance – in the very short time students are in my class – to plant a new seed of literacy.

Parents can and should plant that seed, and it doesn’t take much to do so.

Offering an angst-ridden teen a journal can have much more than just literacy benefits. For mental and emotional health, the act of writing can be therapeutic. Likewise, taking teens to a library can empower them to take charge of their interests. Can they find a certain genre, learn about a new author, or explore a subject? This can change them in ways more vast than they thought possible. A good, old-fashioned book – atop a coffee table, on a bedroom shelf, or near a favorite comfy chair – can make it easy for teens to choose reading at home instead of other, more mindless activities.

Providing teens the environment whereby they can make literacy a choice is a gift parents can give to them, and what a gift it is!

This gift extends far, far beyond their teen years. I would love a classroom of readers. I would love to teach students who find writing a true invention activity, a process of visualization, creation, and sharing that taps into the very essence of what it means to think. To reason, to rationalize, to synthesize – these are valuable skills. I want to help students develop them.

Teaching and parenting are not easy tasks, but if teachers and parents can work in cooperation to encourage the building of fundamental language skills and the establishment of a foundation for literacy, the groundwork is laid for the future. Educators care about the future. Parents do too. We share that, and we can build on that.

There’s no saying, “It’s too late,” or “That won’t work with my teen.” Offer. Show them. Encourage. Surprise them with the knowledge that their favorite film is actually based on a book. That way, when I explain archetypes in a college class, they will be receptive. If they understand that published books involve research and sometimes include a bibliography, learning to write in collegiate format by following Modern Language Association guidelines won’t be so foreign.  

Parents should also avoid the pitfall of using books and writing as punishment. Novel reading should not be a chore. Recording ideas or revisiting events through writing should not be a task that’s leveled as a penalty. Those approaches are disservices to the groundwork that should continue through the teen years in regard to literacy.

In my class, writing is not punitive. Reading is not penance. And parents can do their teens a service by reinforcing writing and reading positively at home.

When an atmosphere of encouragement is created around reading and writing, literacy can flourish. In a world where much is beyond a teen or college student’s control, command of language through reading and writing are important skills that can keep them grounded and help them build confidence for their future.