Tag Archives: kids

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.)

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?

In Which I Make Like Art Linkletter

This afternoon I appeared at what I think is absolutely the toughest venue ever, before a crowd that made me more nervous than any I’ve ever spoken to. This was no gathering of mere academics. Nor was it a room full of graduate students or skeptical writing students. No, this group was far more intimidating than either of those.

This was a group of middle schoolers.

My daughter Madison is a sixth grader, and her reading class has been studying biographies this quarter, poring over various books, and learning the ins and outs of research (i.e primary vs. secondary sources, organization) as they put together their own profiles of famous people (while other tweeners were writing about Justin Timberlake, my daughter, ever the overachiever, chose Gandhi). Always my best promoter, Madison mentioned to her teacher that I had written a biography, so her teacher very graciously called and asked if I’d come up to the school and speak to their two sixth grade reading classes. I told her to pound sand, and hung up on her.

Ha! Ha! No, I kid. Actually, I said of course. But let me tell you, those of you out there who write Young Adult fiction, and thus are regularly asked to talk to the tweeners, my hat is off to you — for while I had an absolute blast, I was incredibly nervous. I mean, I didn’t wanna look like a complete dork in front of my own kid’s peers.

The teacher had very helpfully provided me with a few things she thought I should discuss — why I chose my particular topic, authorized vs. unauthorized biographies, primary vs. secondary sources — but I had only thirty minutes for each group, so I had to make certain I covered everything as clearly and as quickly as I could. No small task for a notorious windbag like me.

The kids filed into the media center and sat on the floor in front of my podium, crosslegged, poking, giggling, and chattering. A few who knew me waved to me — and I waved back, calling them by name which, to my surprise, seemed to make them The Cool Kids. At least for a moment.

So there I stood before at least sixty eager sixth graders and their teachers. I had brought some materials to show them, just to keep things interesting — a portrait of Irving, an original autograph (that one elicited audible ooooohs) and tried to engage with the group as much as I could. I asked if anyone could name a story by Irving (hands shot up all over the room, much to my delight — I’ve had times in a room full of adults when no one could name a story by Irving). I talked about all the famous people he knew (the story about Irving’s nanny getting George Washington to bless his namesake was a crowdpleaser). When I talked about Mary Shelley, I asked if anyone could name a book she wrote (this time, only my daughter raised her hand, and I laughingly called on her, the smartypants).

As I started talking about the process of writing, I showed them two of my notebooks where I write my rough notes out in longhand, in fountain pen. They had studied timelines as one way of organizing materials, so I pointed out that I had written the date 1848 at the top of the page, and then written a list of key events under that date — the very model of a timeline (who knew I took notes like a sixth grader?)

Then we talked tools. “What do you think is the most important tool a biographer has at his disposal when he’s working?” I asked.

“Pencils!” came one suggestion. “Internet!” said another. “Word!” said someone else (a reference to the Microsoft program, I think, and not the slang interjection. At least I hope not.)

“All good suggestions,” I said, “But it’s this.” I held up my library card. Every teacher nodded. Good. I had them.

And then I held up various books and asked if they would be considered primary or secondary sources — a good exercise, and I tripped up quite a few of them when I held up a volume of Irving’s stories collected by the Library of America.

“This is a book of Irving’s stories, published in the 1980s. Primary or secondary?”

“Primary?” came several scattered, though uncertain, voices.

“Primary?” I said incredulously. “But this is fiction.” I slapped the cover for emphasis. “Now: primary or secondary?”

“Secondary!” came considerably more voices, this time more certain.

“It’s by Irving, so it’s primary,” I said, and most of them laughed, finally getting it. A good moment.

Finally, I read a few brief passages, mainly of Irving’s own words, so the kids could get a feel for how funny, how frustrating, and how humble Irving could be, and there was applause all around when I finished. Little did I know the fun was just beginning.

“Any questions?” I said, looking around the room, hoping for just a split second that no one had anything. No such luck. Hands shot up all over the room.

And what questions they were — really, really good questions, unlike any an author is likely to get from an adult crowd. How big is Irving’s house? What did he die of? Did he invent Halloween? Was he a millionaire? These were all questions I could answer, but it was so refreshing to find out what they thought was interesting.

But to my surprise and delight, while they were interested in Irving, they were even more interested in the process of writing and selling books. How long did it take to write? Did you get to design the cover? How many did you sell? Did you meet anyone famous? How many pages was the first draft? And my absolute favorite: Is there anything that got cut out that you wish you could get back? (Answer: No, with only one or two exceptions. But more on that at some other time). All incredibly interesting, perceptive questions. And to my annoyance, the bell rang when it seemed we were just getting started.

A tough crowd? Tougher than you would think — but I loved every minute of it, and I’d do it again in a second. Provided I don’t embarrass my sixth grade daughter, that is.