Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The need to raise readers

I LOVE to read (clearly).  And that is a passion and an art form that was instilled in me as a child by my parents.  For the longest time, the only furniture I had in my room was a bed, a bed-side table, a dresser and a book case (lets face it, that's all that's in there now).  My parents (both) constantly had a book on the go, often times spending large chunks of their weekend reading.  I had a roster of books that constituted bed-time stories that I loved to read on my own at any time of day.  I vividly remember my mom reading me Robinson Crusoe as a kid (in French, no less) during bath time.  My childhood is littered with instances of reading.  And it breaks my heart to hear that other children aren’t having those experiences.

James Patterson, in his opinion piece for, highlights the need to encourage kids to read.  It’s for their own good.  I have to concur given my own experiences in University, highschool, and through tutoring.  I had experiences marking undergrad papers only a few years ago and the quality wasn’t stellar.  From what I understand from friends, the quality is just getting worse.  Patterson’s plea for more reading in childhood has (I’m sure) a direct corollary with abilities to research, synthesize and write later in life.

While tutoring, I noticed a distressing pattern with this generation of students which, upon further reflection, I realized was in place when I was a teen.  For the most part, Ontario education requires students to take one English class a year.  In that class, students have several units which cover short stories, a play, and two novels (one chosen by the teacher, the other chosen by the student individually).  Do the math on that – in the average school year, students are only being asked to read two books and a handful of short stories (including, lets be honest, the play).  

I still distinctly remember what books I was asked to read, and what books I read on my own.  The assigned readings included zeitgeist classics like 1984 and To Kill a Mockingbird, but I clearly wasn’t challenged by those as my 10th grade independent reading choice was Anna Karenina.  And yes, I finished it.  But, in retrospect, the only reason I finished Tolstoy was because our English teacher dedicated huge blocks of class time to reading.  Very much like the programs mentioned by Patterson (Drop Everything and Read, and Knowledge is Power), we were given dedicated reading time and had to have our books on us at all times – we never knew when we would be doing in-class reading.

What I encountered while tutoring was a shocking lack of interest or excitement from my students about reading.  One of the things I expected off all my English students was that they would chose a book and do independent reading while they worked with me.  All the students I put this assignment to rolled their eyes and immediately started with the excuses (‘I don’t have the time’ being the most popular).  But, as I told them, reading is a skill that requires practice – the more you do it, the better you become at it, and the more natural and enjoyable it will be.  Very few students followed my directions, and I’m pretty sure none of them believed me.

I worry about the current generation for a variety of reasons, but the most pressing is their lack of literary interest in favour of technology and laziness.  We’re raising a generation that only knows of Big Brother in context of a reality show, that doesn’t associate Bat Man with the written word, and that will likely never know the joy of books that don’t make it to the silver screen.  It breaks my heart to know that the literary childhood I look back on fondly is a thing of the past and isn’t the norm.  Am I speaking in generalities?  Of course.  But the reality is that more kids aren’t reading than are.  And that’s a trend worth a closer look, and serious efforts by parents and stakeholders (i.e., everyone) to reverse.  

1 comment:

  1. Careful about falling into the generational trap that almost all humans do. Shit, even Socrates thought his epoch's youth represented major social and intellectual decay. Kids were already reading less in the 80s an 90s and people were worried about TV and videogames turning children illiterate. Today we have the internet which may simplify written language among students BUT you have to read most webpages. We can't grow romantically attached to the idea of paper and pages. I think most kids read more words today than they did back in the day just not in books. The trick is to find a link with what and how they are already reading. I truly believe the advent of e-readers may facilitate some of these problems. You will never convince any young person to do anything by starting with "back in my day"

    That and I would love to see first year papers from the 70s...