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Alaskan Range: Boost The Brain

...As Mortimer Adler wrote, and economic studies show, “Reading is a basic tool in the living of a good life.”...

And columnist and librarian Greg Hill is in full agreement with this statement.

My wife of almost four decades assures me that boys never grow up, especially when it comes to the lower levels of humor. I can’t contest that assertion, especially when I’m describing Captain Underpants’ struggles with the evil genius Tippy Tinkletrousers to fourth grade boys for the public library’s Guys Read program.

For eight years teams of Guys Read volunteers have read “boy-friendly” books to fourth grade guys, visiting their schools during lunchtime twice a week for four weeks. They read heavily-illustrated stories that are funny, exciting, or outrageous while projecting the pages and using laser pointers to show where they’re reading. Eight books are presented for twenty minutes each over the month-long program, and private donations enable copies to be donated to the schools’ libraries.

Everyone enjoys the books, because the pictures allow even low-level readers to understand the story’s context and puzzle out each word’s meaning. The goal of Guys Read is to help fourth graders, the boys who are most likely to stop reading for pleasure, to think of themselves as readers. That’s important because people who read for fun tend to have better vocabularies, and as E.D. Hirsch, founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, wrote in a recent NY times article titled “Vocabulary Declines, With Unspeakable Results,” there’s a direct correlation between earning potential and vocabulary scores.

“The Armed Forces Qualification Test gives twice as much weight to verbal scores as to math scores,” Hirsch writes, adding that research shows that “these verbally weighted scores are good predictors of income level. Math is an important index to general competence, but on average, words are twice as important.” Reading scores fell sharply between 1962 and 1980 and have remained flat since. Why? “Analyses of schoolbooks between 1940 and 1960 show a marked dilution of subject matter and vocabulary,” Hirsch states, adding that “the focus on the ‘skill’ of reading has produced students who cannot read. Teachers cannot cultivate reading comprehension by forcing children to practice soul-deadening exercises … Students don’t learn new words by studying vocabulary lists. They do so by guessing new meanings within the overall gist of what they are hearing or reading.” That’s why the illustrations in the boy-friendly Guys Read books are important; they allow boys to figure out new words and set off what reading specialists call “the rocket-booster to the brain.”

This “rocket-booster” is the effect literature and reading have on brain stimulation. An article from www.Telegraph.co.uk titled “Shakespeare and Wordsworth Boost the Brain, New Research Reveals,” describes how “reading the words of the Bard and other classical writers has a beneficial effect on the mind, catches the reader’s attention, and triggers moments of self-reflection.” Liverpool University researchers “translated” texts from great writers “into more ‘straightforward,’ modern language” and monitored readers’ brain activities while reading both versions. “The more challenging prose and poetry set off far more electrical activity” especially when “readers encountered unusual words, surprising phases, or difficult sentence structure.

This ‘Lighting up’ of the mind lasts longer than the initial electrical spark, shifting the brain to a higher gear, encouraging further reading,” and “reading poetry, in particular, increases activity in the right hemisphere of the brain, an area concerned with ‘autobiographical memory,’ helping the reader to reflect on and reappraise their own experiences.”

Guys Read books like “Bad Island,” “Bad Kitty Gets a Bath,” and “Duck Tales,” aren’t considered great literature (though I can make a strong argument for the latter), but fourth grade boys find authors like Shakespeare way over their heads. However, to fourth graders, rabbit samurais, school buses full of space alien children, and islands that can turn into transformer-like robots is a different, and stimulating matter.

Pleasure reading improves reading speeds, comprehension, and vocabularies. According to the International Reading Association, “Adolescents entering the adult world in the 21st century will read and write more than at any other time in human history.” Guys Read books are chosen to lead even the most reluctant readers into a lifetime of pleasure reading. That leads to more competency, and reading well translates into a better life. As Mortimer Adler wrote, and economic studies show, “Reading is a basic tool in the living of a good life.”


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