Common Sense Media highlights how stagnant reading proficiency has been the past forty years in America in a new study they have conducted. One of the startling, but not unexpected, finding is how younger children are reading less and less for pleasure. This tells me a couple of things: the emphasis on homework, testing, and academic reading at younger ages is impacting students’ ability to fit pleasure reading into their lives, and the plethora of media based reading sources are not yet accounted for in a child’s reading habits.
As an English teacher, I witness daily some pretty horrid reading habits among high schoolers. During my schools SSR period (Sustained Silent Reading), students read for 15 minutes a day. Most student do bring a book to read. Many borrow from my class library too. But there are a consistent group of probably a third of the students who stare at the same page every day or reread the same chapter from a book in my classroom every day. I offer these non-readers graphic novels, manga/anime, and magazines to read as well. My goal is that they read for pleasure regardless of the genre. Unfortunately, some students just refuse to read for pleasure. Even my own son, who does read for pleasure during his school’s SSR time, has taken to using that daily dose of silent reading to read literature assigned in his honors English class. Not that I find reading Shelley’s Frankenstein a bad thing, but he’d much rather be reading Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series. And I know he would read more at home, if he was ever at home. His AP study sessions and other homework have eaten up evening time to the point that we rarely sit at home and just read. Bear in mind, I have no complaints that he has homework. But I can clearly see why many students do not read for pleasure.
As far as the reading proficiency gap among the races remaining unchanged over the past twenty years, I agree to an extent with Vicky Rideout, the lead author of Common Sense Media’s report. I agree in that it is “shameful” that the gap still exists–but only because we have done so little to address the root economic causes of the gap. And we still fail to acknowledge the cultural causes. To still ignore that students of color often live in more highly impoverished areas with reduced access to books is to ignore that we as a society are eager to say schools and students are failing while not providing the tools that research and information clearly state they need. Stephen Krashen, Linguistics/Education Professor Emeritus from the University of Southern California, has long championed access to books as an effective pathway to literacy. He recently published in Education Journal on the need to revisit prior research regarding literacy in light of the new Common Core State Standards. And while Krashen is better known in language acquisition circles, he has advocated for years that “Once a good reader, always a good reader.” His work, along with Jeff McQuillan, shows that “bad readers” can become good readers and that late intervention is better than no intervention and that we should promote “free reading” to build these “good readers.”
So the dropping number of young students reading for pleasure does raise red flags. Now as a society, we must decide how to proceed. It only makes sense to identify the causes (rather than the theories I peruse above) and choose a course of action that leads to the desired outcome. If we already know that reading for pleasure creates literacy, as research like Krashen’s has long proven, then why do we as a culture and as citizen’s allow for policy that interferes with what we know works? That is an even larger question that will remain unanswered so long as “Reformers” say schools wrong and testing our way to success is right. Reading proficiency will continue to stagnate so long as we don’t support our libraries, nor encourage booksellers to set up shop in impoverished neighborhoods, nor promote reading for pleasure as part of school curricula.