The Demise of Student Reading: Who’s To Blame?

Over the weekend, in a column in the Washington Post, high school English teacher Nancy Schnog pondered the disturbing finding — which we discussed in this very blog several months ago — that a vast majority of high school students don’t read anything for pleasure. In fact, as she points out (citing a report from the National Endowment for the Arts), the percentage of 17-year olds who read nothing at all for pleasure has doubled in the past 20 years. (Schnog’s column, “We’re Teaching Books That Don’t Stack Up,” can be seen here. Registration may be needed.)

What happened? Is it the usual boogeymen of video games, the Internet, and other electronic media? Nope. Schnog lays much of the blame for this backslide squarely on the shoulders of those who share her profession:

…it’s time to acknowledge that the lure of visual media isn’t the only thing pushing our kids away from the page and toward the screen. We’ve shied away from discussing a most unfortunate culprit in the saga of diminishing teen reading: the high-school English classroom. As much as I hate to admit it, all too often it’s English teachers like me — as able and well-intentioned as we may be — who close down teen interest in reading.

Part of the problem, Schnog continues, is that the books selected for the reading curriculum are, to your average teenager, inaccessible, unrelatable, or just plain lame:

I watched this play out last year when the junior reading list at my school, consisting mainly of major American authors, was fortified with readings in Shakespeare, Ibsen and the British Romantic poets. When I handed my students two weeks of readings by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge after a month-long study of American transcendentalists, it became clear that they had overdosed on verse packed with nature description and emotional reflection. “When will we read something with a plot?” asked one agitated boy, obviously yearning for afternoon lacrosse to begin.

Schnog doesn’t cop out by blaming the requirements of No Child Left Behind; rather, it’s teachers, principals, and school administrators who are out of touch with teens’ tastes and interests. It’s not that teens aren’t interested in reading, or even in reading the classics; what they want to read, for example, is works by Issac Asimov, J.R.R. Tolkien, Neil Gaiman, or Stephen King — the kind of stuff that has traditionally (though unfairly) been poo-pooed by stifflips, but that teens consume faster than toaster streudel.

Think back to your own experience. Even if you considered yourself a hardcore reader in high school, chances are good that many of the books on the Required Reading list left you cold or actively disinterested. I was annoyed by the heavyhanded symbolism of Lord of the Flies, for example, but loved Stephen King’s The Stand. Other classmates of mine, who teachers had written off as hopeless because they refused to read Shakespeare, had no problems soaking up multiple volumes by writers like Stephen R. Donaldson or Piers Anthony.

Schnog concludes like so:

But if we really want to recruit teen readers, we’re going to have to be strenuous advocates for fresh and innovative reading incentives. If that means an end to business as usual — abolishing dry-bones literature tests, cutting back on fact-based quizzes, adding works of science fiction or popular nonfiction to the reading list — so be it. We can continue to alienate teen readers, or we can hear them, acknowledge their tastes, engage directly with their resistance to serious reading and move gradually, with sensitivity to what’s age-appropriate, toward the realm of great literature.

I think she’s right. She’s not proposing scrapping the classics altogether, but balancing them against more modern — and yes, popular — fare. There’s nothing wrong with providing teens with a bit of dessert with the spinach, especially if the dessert is actually good for you.

(Need proof that teenagers can read for pleasure when properly inspired? Go to your local Borders or Barnes & Noble and look at the number of teens — many of them girls — sprawled on the floor in front of the anime and graphic novels sections, poring through volumes the size of small phone books. What’s that? Only illiterates read comics? No, illiterates don’t read anything.)

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