By Jordan Shapiro
Site Reference: http://www.forbes.com/sites/jordanshapiro/2014/05/13/kids-dont-read-books-because-parents-dont-read-books/
There is a cultural narrative about how electronic devices are pulling children away from books. When I meet with other university professors they often tell me that the students don’t read anymore because their eyeballs are glued to their phones. Technophobes think we are raising a generation that doesn’t understand the value of literature.
The polarization of old and new continues. Maybe it is leftover sediment from an anti-screen mindset that was always on the fringes of the golden age of television. It is a trite myth-like story that attempts to cast books as the underdog in battle against thechno-imperialism. Paper is the good guy and Gorilla Glass is the villain.
Common Sense Media’s new report, entitled “Children, Teens, And Reading,” attempts to offer a “big-picture perspective on children’s reading habits in the United States and how they may have changed during the technological revolution of recent decades.” The big scary takeaway:
According to government studies, since 1984, the percent of 13-year-olds who are weekly readers went down from 70% to 53%, and the percent of 17-year-olds who are weekly readers went from 64% to 40%. The percent of 17-year-olds who never or hardly ever read tripled during this period, from 9% to 27%.
These statistics are startling. But I’m not sure what this has to do with technology. The framing doesn’t make much sense to me.
It seems to me that we currently live in a culture that is more heavily text based than any other time in history. People read all day long. Google, Twitter, and Facebook deliver words. People can’t peel their eyes from the smartphone–essentially a text and information distribution mechanism. We actually have trouble NOT reading. Folks are always checking their email and their text messages. Sometimes it is hard to pull away from this matrix of letters.
Still, what are people reading? It seems like they don’t read many books. I’m not talking about kids, but rather adults. Even the technophobes don’t read books.
I’ve met highly educated elite individuals who have told me they just don’t have time to read books. They skim the NY Times book review so they can participate in cocktail party conversations. They buy executive summaries from the back of in-flight magazines. I’m shocked by the number of people who ask me if there are audio versions of my books available.
Is the problem that kids don’t read books, or is the problem that nobody reads books because our culture has become anti-academic and anti-intellectual? We’d prefer to read magazines and blogs that are subtly self-promotional in their incessant questioning the value of the humanities, liberal arts education, and those university degrees that are more dependent on books than algorithms and databases. The popular rhetoric tells us we need more STEM education, more engineers, more entrepreneurs. We’re surrounded by an implicit anti-book agenda, and still we wonder why kids don’t read books.
I’ll admit that I’m biased. I’m an academic. I get paid to read. But my kids (6 and 8) also read a lot on their own. Not only because I require it–30 minutes of reading is a prerequisite to video game time–but also because their dad models good reading behaviors. Dad is always ordering new books; dad is always reading them. In my household, being an adult means feeling comfortable with books. Maturity means having excessive familiarity with long-form written word.
The Common Sense Media report agrees. “Parents can encourage reading,” they explain, “by keeping print books in the home, reading themselves, and setting aside time daily for their children to read.”
Strong correlations exist between these parental actions and the frequency with which children read (scholastic, 2013). For example, among children who are frequent readers, 57% of parents set aside time each day for their child to read, compared to 16% of parents of children who are infrequent readers.
When it comes to books, however, most studies show that the text delivery method is irrelevant. Good reading behavior has nothing to do with technology. E-readers, tablets, laptop screens are all capable of delivering long-form text. Books have nothing to do with paper. In fact, electronic devices only increase access to books. A report from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center released earlier this year explains that “a majority of children ages 2 to 10 have access to a device for electronic reading: 55% have a multipurpose tablet in the home, and 29% have a dedicated e-reader (62% have access to at least one of these devices). Among children with one of these devices in the home, half (49%) engage in electronic reading, either on their own or with their parent (30% of all children).” Books matter; how kids read them doesn’t.
My kids read on the iPad, the e-reader, and paper. I make sure of it. I read to my kids every night. I read with my kids during the day. I do it because I see it as a crucial piece of their education. I can’t just outsource the raising of my children to specialists–and then complain that those teachers are failing. It is obvious to me that parents also need to be involved. They need to make sure their children read books.
Of course, it is easier to frame the story as paper vs. digital. It gives us permission not to engage with our kids. We can blame the video games and apps rather than blaming ourselves. Parents need to take responsibility for raising thoughtful, empathic, open-minded adults. Books are a crucial part of the equation. But even if we eliminated every digital technology from our lives, our kids still won’t read books unless we tell them in no uncertain terms that books are an important part of being an adult.
Teach your kids to read. And teach your kids that it matters what they read. Renaissance Learning’s annual “What Kids Are Reading Report” tells us a lot about what kids are currently reading and it is not all pretty. Their huge study “does not summarize sales or library data. It uses data from 318 million books read by 9.8 million students in the U.S. to determine what the most popular books are in a given year. It is the most extensive report in the U.S. that reflects K12 reading trends.”
Three interesting findings:
1. Gendered reading starts as early as first grade. Elementary-school boys read tons of “Captain Underpants,” but it doesn’t even make it to the girls’ top 20 list. We’re conditioned to read statistics like this as proof that girls and boys have different preferences, tastes, and attitudes. I don’t believe it. Alternatively, we might read this as evidence that we are creating an increasingly gendered world where roles and intellectual expectations are divided according to biological reproductive organs. If this is really what you want, by all means, keep at it. If not, there are plenty of books that are non-gendered; let your kids know that you think more highly of these.
2. Middle schoolers (in particular 6th graders) are reading the most words per student. The average words per student increases through middle school and then starts decreasing again in high school. I see this as evidence that parents are sending the wrong message about books to their children. We value literacy, cheering on small kids to learn to read as quickly as possible. But when these kids become adolescents they attempt to directly emulate their adult role models. If adults don’t read books then trying to act like an adult means not reading books.
3. Books like Twilight and Hunger Games are more popular than literary classics. These days, teachers assign these more often than Shakespeare or Don Quixote. Most of them will tell you that it is because they figure any reading is good reading and books like these increase student engagement. On the one hand, this makes sense. On the other hand, we should remember that popular fiction prioritizes sales over content. They are revenue generators first and literary explorations of the human condition only afterward. This doesn’t necessarily mean popular fiction is bad, but there’s also a reason that certain books have transcended the economic, political, and epistemological trends of particular centuries.
At the end of the day, how our children read and what our children read says a lot more about adult attitudes about books than it does about the kids’. Model the behaviors and attitudes you want your children to emulate.
Jordan Shapiro is author of FREEPLAY: A Video Game Guide to Maximum Euphoric Bliss, and MindShift’s Guide To Games And Learning For information on Jordan’s upcoming books and events click here.