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Off the Shelves: Reading as punishment: Is the written word that reviled?

POSTED: July 15, 2012 7:00 a.m.

A few odd news articles have come to my attention lately: A California man convicted of attempting to sell a grenade launcher to an undercover federal agent was sentenced to write a book report; a Brazilian prison has offered to reduce prison sentences of inmates for reading books; and a woman in South Carolina is given the penance of reading the Bible after being convicted of injuring two people while driving drunk.

Since when did reading become such a despised practice that now the justice system is using it as a means of punishment?

Hopefully, most people understand why these verdicts have been issued. The expectation is that these lawbreakers will educate themselves and thus become smarter and better decision makers, as opposed to doing nothing all day in a prison cell.

One could say that the Brazilian prisoners are, in fact, being rewarded with less jail time when they opt to read books.

In all these cases, however — since these arrested individuals are clearly not very bright to begin with, and may not get the intended point behind it — the message being sent seems to be: “You’ve done a bad thing; now you have to read.”

One would hope that these individuals, as adults, would realize they are receiving a positive alternative to what most convicted felons get.

But it made me think about when we do similar acts of reprimand to children.

In schools, when children break the rules or disrupt class, they are commonly punished with having to do additional homework, or write an essay to contemplate on their actions, or go to detention where all they can do is sit quietly and read.

One teacher in Alberta, Canada, (who blogs under the alias Digital Substitute), writes about when he was substituting a junior high class.

The students had been misbehaving the previous period, so as punishment they were being forced to miss their gym class and instead read at their desks.

This distressed the bloggger since he absolutely loves reading, and always encourages students to read more as a benefit. He realized that the school was using this “reading time” as filler instead of trying to truly discipline these students.

The result is that the students were associating reading as a negative consequence.

Maybe this is why so many adults aren’t avid readers?

So how can we encourage more children to associate reading and knowledge as a reward rather than a penalty or a chore?

Since young children tend to emulate the adults they look up to, maybe we should try rewarding their good behavior with more quality parent-child read-alongs, or trips to the local library for scheduled story times. If children see how much their parents enjoy reading, they could become just as enthusiastic about it.

What of adults? Does education have to be forced on us after an extreme case in order for us to want to better our minds? Should we start using reading more often as a court-ordered sentence, in the hopes that it may actually prevent future acts of criminal stupidity?

Maybe now is a good time to start retraining our brains.

Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review appears every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? E-mail her to tell her about it. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesvilletimes.com/life.


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