Category Archives: reading

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.)

The Library System We Deserve?

According to this article in today’s Washington Post, budget reductions have prompted the D.C. public library system to propose cutting back its hours — including the closing of all branches on Fridays.

I wish this wasn’t a common occurence. Even in my neck of the woods — up in Montgomery County, Maryland, where we have a fairly healthy budget — our libraries aren’t open every day, either. Even more frustrating, the local library two blocks from my house is closed on Sundays. I can almost understand closing on a Tuesday, or even on Friday. But closing on weekends, when it’s easier to find the time to visit the library — and when students often need their resources the most — is teeth-gnashingly exasperating.

The thing is, Americans have a shaky relationship with their libraries. Like an aging or senile parent, we love them in concept, but don’t want to visit them. When that new David Baldacci or Stephen King or David McCullough book comes out, we don’t run for the library, we head for Barnes and Noble instead. We’d rather purchase it new in hardback and read it when we have the time, rather than read a loaner which we only have a certain amount of time to read before it’s due back.

I’ve heard plenty of reasons offered for why we don’t visit libraries as much any more. Germphobes don’t like the thought of reading a book that plenty of others have touched or (*shudder*) may actually have read in the bathroom. Others cite the inconvenience of having to return the book after a certain number of days or weeks (though some of these are no doubt the same people who have no problem returning a movie or video game to Blockbuster after three days). Researchers say the availability of materials on the internet has removed the need to run to the library for the Encyclopedia Brittanica or a newspaper from 1972. Some point out that libraries, in their rush to acquire as many copies as they can of the latest bestseller, often give short shrift to older books — making the library a great place to read books published after 1990, for example, but not much else.

There’s something to be said for all those arguments, but it doesn’t change the fact that we’re all finding reasons to stay away from the library. It’s like public transportation: everyone wants government to invest in more buses and mass transit for someone else to ride. We like the idea of libraries more than the libraries themselves.

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit and speak at a number of fantastic libraries up and down the Atlantic Coast — the Redwood Library and Athenaeum, the New York Society Library, the Philadelphia Library, and even my local library in Damascus, Maryland — and if there was one thing they all had in common, it was readers and librarians who were passionate about them. Unfortunately, passion alone doesn’t keep the doors open on Sundays, when I’ve got my nose pressed up against the glass front door wondering if they’ve got a copy of Ted Widmer’s Martin Van Buren so I can look something up. Our libraries need more than our passion and affection; they need our support and patronage.

If you haven’t been to a library in ages — for any number of reasons — visit one again. You’ll find it’s still the best form of entertainment around, and librarians are still some of the most helpful people on the planet, always ready to help you find anything you’re looking for — and maybe even recommend something you don’t know you’re looking for yet.

Go on. You deserve it.

What Kids Are Reading

In today’s Washington Post, crack education writer Jay Mathews highlights a new report from Renaissance Learning titled “What Kids Are Reading: The Book-Reading Habits of Students in American Schools.” And it’s fascinating stuff.

Jay Mathews’ Post story is here, and the full report can be seen here. Watch out, the file is a biggie.

Data is broken down in a number of ways — by grade level, geographic region, gender, and so on — but for the most part, the same books keep rising to the top. For those of us who haven’t read “kid’s books” in a long time, it’s nice to see so many familiar faces on the list, from Dr. Seuss and Judy Blume to S.E. Hinton and E.B. White. My Brother Sam Is Dead makes an appearance, as does To Kill A Mockingbird. And there are plenty of fun relatively new faces, too, like Louis Sacher and J.K. Rowling, along with sturdy new favorites like Lemony Snicket and Captain Underpants.

I’m delighted to see what kids are reading — and to see that a lot of my old favorites are still being read today. My 11-year-old would probably argue for the inclusion of Peter Abrahams and his Echo Falls series, and I was hoping to see Beverly Cleary make a stronger showing, but you can’t have everything.

It’s discouraging, however, to see the average number of books read by students drop precipitously as they move into high school. Students read voraciously in the early grades — averaging as many as 46 books per student in second grade — then gradually sputter down to a pathetic 4.5 books read per year, per student, by the twelfth grade. And that number, I would guess, probably reflects the number of books students were required to read as part of their school curriculum. Once outside the reach of the classroom, students don’t appear to be heading to the library, or to Borders, in search of entertainment or enlightenment. But when another recent survey showed that 53 percent of American adults don’t read anything at all, do we really have the nerve to act surprised?

Read Renaissance Learning’s report — or at least read Jay Mathew’s summary of it — then tell me: What books were you surprised to see on the list? What were you surprised to not see? And what do you think can be done to keep kids reading into high school and beyond?