Johnny Doesn’t Read Even When He Can

For years I required my advanced 10th graders to read 2,000 pages a semester, averaging 100 pages a week, based on books that they chose. That way if a book we studied in class didn’t catch their fancy, they had the freedom to find books that appealed to them as long as the selections were appropriate for their grade level and school use.

However, after struggling how to ensure that the reading logs students turned in each month documenting this task were completely honest, I decided to decrease the amount to 1,500 pages this year, 70 pages a week, hoping that would diminish falsifying the logs.

So what happened? The strategy did not work.

When asked if they honestly did the 70 pages of reading each week on their own, an average of 10 pages a day, 66% said that they had done all of the reading while 34% said they had not.

Here are some of their responses.

“I honestly have no excuse other than the fact that I have no time to read every day.”

“In this day of competition and cheating in school, it’s difficult to be completely honest because it can be damaging to yourself, sometimes even more than being dishonest.”

The biggest reason given for not reading was a lack of time. Yet teens find the time to watch nine hours of entertainment media a day according to Common Sense Media’s study released last month.

They can’t seem to find 10 minutes a day to read 10 pages in a book that they personally chose for themselves.

While many students did write that “reading is absolutely essential” to their academic and career success, some did not see it that way.

“I don’t think it is essential to get through high school and college.”

“We are used to visuals; one would rather have it read to us than read ourselves.”

“Reading books is pointless, they are just really dumb.”

“If I felt like it, I could be at least mildly successful without reading another written word in my life.” Remember, this student volunteered to enroll in an honors English class.

By the way, one of the requirements of the reading log is for the student and his parent to sign off on the paper as a way of securing the veracity of the work.   Evidently, students do not take signing one’s name to a piece of paper as meaningful.

I tell my students the best way to improve their writing and speaking skills is to read material at or slightly above their reading level. Just by seeing words in print will expand their vocabulary database.

Renaissance Learning, an education analytic company, discovered that students who read 30 minutes a day were exposed to 13.7 million words by the time they graduated high school, while those who read fewer than 15 minutes viewed only 1.5 million words.   Unfortunately, the former group represented 18% of kids while the latter 54%.

And the problem gets exponentially worse in college where there are textbooks not as watered down as the ones kids read in high school, another factor why so many college students struggle finishing a degree.

We are living at a time when reading books is not a viable option for kids in their spare time. Perhaps if they observed more of their parents reading a book it would interest them.

Think about this: how many teenagers will be receiving books as presents this Christmas compared to video games?   Books have become the new “underwear” present that evidently few people want under the tree.



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.