Huckleberry FinnThere are a variety of different theories as to how to best teach students to write. Some teachers argue that a deep understanding of writing mechanics is necessary for becoming a good writer, and that all teachers should emphasize the rules of spelling, grammar, and diction. Others believe that writing is an art form, an expression, and it’s more important to help a student find his “voice” than it is to teach him the difference between “their” and “they’re.” Finally, there are teachers who believe that the best way to teach a student to be a good writer is to have him read as much as he can.

The idea behind the third theory is that if a student immerses himself in the works of great writers: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, etc., he will absorb writing skills almost by osmosis. It’s not as crazy as it might sound at first. A student can learn all the rules of writing mechanics, but if he has no inspiration for telling a story or forming an argument, his writing will always be lacking something.

But which writers should he read? Virginia Woolf is widely regarded as one of the best writers of the 20th century, but she never met a run-on sentence that she didn’t like. Mark Twain’s work is almost universally respected, but what does a student learn about language by reading Huckleberry Finn? It’s a wonderful story, but Huck and Jim’s language isn’t exactly exemplary. Jane Austen is a probably safe choice; her sentences are as carefully crafted as her plot lines, but not everyone wants to read Jane Austen all the time. Or at all.

In the end, it’s probably best for students to just read the things that they like. They’ll be exposed to enough classical literature when they’re studying for the AP English Language exam; there’s no harm in them reading a little Harry Potter or Twilight, especially if they’re reluctant readers to begin with. They have time to work their way up to Shakespeare and Tolstoy.

For students who aren’t the most enthusiastic readers, parents and teachers can start them off with short story collections. Reading short stories can be highly gratifying because a student can finish reading something in a very short amount of time, as opposed to feeling like he’s just made a small amount of headway in what seems like a never-ending novel. The short stories of Ernest Hemingway are generally easy to follow, interesting, and, of course, well-written.

While most non-readers probably don’t seem like great candidates for poetry, some may be, particularly those who are musically inclined. If a student can’t get into the rhythmless nature of prose, perhaps he’ll respond better to the beautiful lyric quality of “For I have known them all already, known them all/Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons/I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” Those lines are from T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock, but they could really be song lyrics.

In an ideal world, a student would read a little from a variety of genres and, hopefully, gain the best of what each has to offer. Because even if well-read students aren’t always the best writers, they’ll at least have the opportunity to inspired by the world’s best writers.