MARTY RUSSELL: State right to focus on good reading skills

By Marty Russell

“Quickly,” I used to ask my students, usually at the beginning of the semester when I was teaching journalism classes, “tell me the last book you read.”
The question was always followed by a lot of navel gazing and profound silence. After a few awkward seconds, some student, usually on the front row, would sheepishly raise her hand – it was almost always a female student – and embarrassingly mumble something like “Harry Potter” or the “Twilight” series.
“Good,” I would try and reassure her. “Nothing wrong with reading popular fiction as long as you’re reading. Now, what about the rest of you?”
More navel gazing, more crickets chirping. This would go on for what seemed like an eternity until I finally gave them the admonishment I always expected to have to give when I asked that question.
“How can you expect to be a writer,” I would ask, in their case be a journalist, “if you don’t read?”
Most of them would then admit they didn’t even read a newspaper on a daily basis, whether in print or digital form. That always made me want to go into a corner of the classroom and sniff dry erase markers until either all my brain cells died or the students all slunk away.
Instead I would launch into my spiel about how reading is essential to good writing, how, almost by osmosis, you pick up on good writing by reading good writing. It doesn’t even have to be good writing, I would tell them. Just getting into the habit of reading. I tried to shame them by telling them I was an habitual reader, that my wife won’t even put condiment bottles on the dinner table because she knows I’ll pick them up and start reading the labels.
Still, nothing but crickets chirping.
I’m not sure what the answer is but I’m glad to see that reading proficiency is back in the news as a means of improving the state’s education system and students’ ability to learn. In addition to teaching journalism classes I’ve also taught English composition classes on the college level and I’ve been appalled at the quality of writing I have seen by students from this state.
It’s an uphill battle but it has to start at the base of the hill at the elementary level. I was in the first class of teacher aides under a reading program begun by the late George McLean, publisher of this newspaper.
I’m not sure I did much good seeing as how I saw it mainly as a way to get out of one period of classes in high school, but it was a good idea.
That’s where change has to begin. Good writing and rhetoric skills are essential in any field of endeavor. You can’t wait until they reach college level. Otherwise, we’ll all soon be reading novels that are 145 characters or less and use symbols and numbers rather than words.
Marty Russell writes a Wednesday column for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at

Click video to hear audio