How to Read a Story

Wait…that’s easy.  You just sit down and start reading.  You read until you’re finished and that’s all.  That’s how you read a story.  Right?

Not exactly.

Music is the metaphor that I like to use.  You don’t listen to  a favorite song just once, proclaim, “Oh, that’s my favorite song”, and then never listen to it ever again.  That’s ridiculous.

You listen to your favorite song over and over again.  You can hum the tune in your sleep.  You know the lines of the chorus by heart.


Because you’ve experienced the song more than once.  That’s how you get a better understanding of something – repeated exposure.

The same is true for reading.

You will get a deeper understanding of a text with repeated exposure.  Here’s the problem: You don’t want to read most of the things that your teachers ask you to read.  Even once.

Here’s a good example – the opening to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë.  It reads as follows:

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further outdoor exercise was now out of the question.

I was glad of it: I never liked long walks, especially on chilly afternoons: dreadful to me was the coming home in the raw twilight, with nipped fingers and toes, and a heart saddened by the chidings of Bessie, the nurse, and humbled by the consciousness of my physical inferiority to Eliza, John, and Georgiana Reed.

The said Eliza, John, and Georgiana were now clustered round their mama in the drawing-room: she lay reclined on a sofa by the fireside, and with her darlings about her (for the time neither quarrelling nor crying) looked perfectly happy. Me, she had dispensed from joining the group; saying, “She regretted to be under the necessity of keeping me at a distance; but that until she heard from Bessie, and could discover by her own observation, that I was endeavouring in good earnest to acquire a more sociable and childlike disposition, a more attractive and sprightly manner—something lighter, franker, more natural, as it were—she really must exclude me from privileges intended only for contented, happy, little children.”

I struggled to read those three paragraphs…even once.  Imagine being tasked with reading the entire novel.  I consider it a Sisyphean endeavor, at best.

You don’t struggle to listen to your favorite song.  I don’t think that you should have to struggle to read something, especially when you might be tasked with thinking/writing about what you’ve read.

Therein lies the rub.

Just as musical tastes differ from person to person, so too, do reading tastes.  There are some who delight in Brontë.  I, decidedly, do not.

Most of the problem with Jane Eyre is that the language is foreign to us.  We don’t speak, read, or write like Brontë.  If I have to stop and think about what an author is saying because of the way he or she is saying it, then I’m not going to get lost in the experience of reading the story.

For an optimum reading experience, the reader must be familiar with the language/writing style of the author.  It is only then that the reader can become lost in the tale, and more important, be willing to make repeated forays into these literary worlds.

So what does this mean for teachers and students?

Students mush be given more choices with respect to what they are expected to read.

Why? Because students must read a story more than once in order to fully understand it.

A musician practices a piece of music more than once in order to be able to perform it well.  A reader must read a story more than once in order to write about it.

And someone should want to read something more than once if it is written well.

Thus, students should be given more freedom to read what they want to read.  Freedom.  It is an idea worth teaching, and by allowing for greater freedom in reading choices, we (teachers and parents) are actually putting this idea into practice.

How many times should you read a story?

You should read a story as many times as necessary in order for you to identify what you like (or don’t like) about the main characters, as well as the various component parts of the plot structure.

Most important of all, you should read a story as many times as possible in order to understand the message (or theme) that the author is trying to convey.