Evidently Reading is No Longer Fundamental

Kids don’t read that much today whether the material is e-books, online magazine articles or student newspapers; in fact, some don’t read at all.

This is not a scientific fact. I have no Gallop poll or think tank report to prove my point.   This conclusion is based on my first-hand observations along with nearly the unanimous view of fellow teachers.

Teachers have a tough decision to make with students who don’t read: go ahead and test them on material knowing that they will fail, dummy down the assessments so that even those who didn’t do the reading can still pass a test, or cut down on the amount of reading.

After years of resisting change, I have succumbed to the last choice. For the first time in my 27 years of teaching, I have lowered the amount of reading I expect students to do on their own.

Instead of asking students to read 30 pages in a book each night, now I have them read 20 pages. Let’s say it takes two minutes to read one page; that would translate to 40 minutes of homework.

During a recent short story unit, I discovered that a good one-third of my advanced students felt incapable or uninterested to read an 8-page story that would have taken about 15 minutes of their time; for them, this was a mountain to climb, a task they could not or would not complete.

And this assignment was for an honors English class where students receive an extra grade point like an advanced placement course.   These kids are considered to be at the top of their class, a cut above the rest, the type who will graduate college and end up in good paying professions.

What this tells me is that it is not about how many pages kids have to read, it’s that they just don’t want to read.

When faced with a hardbound book without pictures versus a handheld device with streaming video, there is no contest.   Devices rule.

The dilemma is, do schools continue doing what they have long been doing, handing out printed books and assigning nightly reading, or do they go in a different direction?

I had a colleague who didn’t trust that his students would do the reading of “Hamlet” so he read the whole text out loud.   Some would say that this was not the best use of precious classroom time, but others would say that at least the kids gained knowledge about the Prince of Denmark.

Years ago students who did not want to read books used Cliffs Notes. In today’s Internet age, it is Shmoop.

But there are students who don’t even put forth the minimum effort to read these so-called study aids.

It makes me wonder if reading is on the way out along other modes of increasingly anachronistic abilities such as writing in longhand and speaking over the phone.

Remember the old public service announcement slogan, Reading is Fundamental? Well, the organization behind it is still in existence.   Julie Rodriguez, vice president of literacy services, told me that an important aspect in getting high schoolers to read is explaining “how it will help them” in their future.

That is quite a challenge in a world dominated with emoji and emoticons as the modus operandi for communicating.

Nevertheless, teachers should not give up on expecting students to read.   Of the myriad services schools provide, let us not underestimate the refuge reading offers students from the electronic devices that consume their time outside of school.

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