In September, I received a message from my third-grade son’s school that he was reading at second-grade level.
Some people would not see that as a particularly big deal, but I was a bit alarmed by the news. For one, my son is old for his class, which means he was perhaps a full two years behind other children his age. Secondly, I’m something of a reading evangelist and believe in the power of books.
So the fact that my own son—who is quite bright and scores extremely high in math—was struggling hit me a little, but it was not a surprise. Like many children, he had fallen behind in reading during the pandemic, and our efforts to get him caught up at home were pretty ineffective. Part of the problem was that as parents we did not do a good enough job of finding the right books to naturally kindle his interest and curiosity, but another issue was that at some point he began to feel self-conscious about this reading, which created an aversion to books.
Though I was bothered by this, I also didn’t want to push too hard. The best education experts I know argue that children pick up reading at different ages, and efforts to aggressively encourage reading can be counterproductive.
“Forcing reading instruction before a child is developmentally ready to learn to read can cause more harm than good,” my colleague Kerry McDonald writes in her wonderful book Unschooled.
This is good advice. But it didn’t mean I didn’t harbor concerns, especially as my son was getting older. Fortunately, he recently had a breakthrough.
‘I Am so Proud of Him’
About two months ago, I had just finished reading a story to my 6-year-old son who shares a bedroom with his older brother. I went to flick the light off when my older son said something I’d never heard before.
“Can I read for just ten more minutes,” he pleaded, showing me his book on pro football players.
I of course readily gave my approval, then went downstairs to tell my wife. She was not as surprised as I was.
“They’re doing a reading competition at school. It's boys against girls,” she said. “Every minute he reads is now added to their score. So now he wants to read—because it’s a competition.”
My wife did not say this disapprovingly, but she said it in a way that said of course he wants to read now. (My son is competitive.)
Over the next several weeks I watched as my son made a point of reading every night. Oftentimes he’d ask—just like on that first night—if he could read just 10 more minutes. Many nights he’d fall asleep with a book on his chest.
I have to admit that at first I found this strategy a tad cynical, but then I got the results. Over the span of seven weeks, my son leapt nearly two reading levels. He’s reading comfortably at the third-grade level and we’re now focusing more on reading comprehension than reciting sentences. He’s asking for books on World War I, World War II, and Vietnam for Christmas.
“His fluency has improved so much! I am so proud of him,” his teacher told me in a recent email, after I told her how effective her strategy had been.
Competition as a Virtue
I don’t doubt that some will look on this strategy with disdain. We’re taught today that competition is crass, even harmful. George Soros, in a highly read piece from the 1990s published in The Atlantic, could have been speaking for many when he wrote that competition can “cause intolerable inequities and instability.” For many, competition is a dirty word, a sinister force to be suppressed and controlled.
This is nonsense, of course. Competition isn’t just innate to humans; it brings out the best in us.
It’s the force that drove Roger Bannister to break the four-minute mile. It’s given us the achievements of Michael Phelps and Michael Jordan. Socially, competition is what prompted the Brooklyn Dodgers to do the unthinkable and sign Jackie Robinson, breaking the color barrier and forever changing sports and America.
Competition is also the engine of a market economy. The efficiency of the modern economic system would be impossible without it, Henry Hazlitt pointed out in his classic book The Conquest of Poverty.
“Competition will tend constantly to bring about the most economical and efficient method of production possible with existing technology—and then it will start devising a still more efficient technology. It will reduce the cost of existing production, it will improve products, it will invent or discover wholly new products, as individual producers try to think what product consumers would buy if it existed.
Those who are least successful in this competition will lose their original capital and be forced out of the field; those who are most successful will acquire through profits more capital to increase their production still further.”
More people need to recognize that competition is a healthy force. It’s capable of not just lifting tens of millions of people from poverty, but of galvanizing a 9-year-old child to push himself to read despite his fears. That’s power.