The Reading Crisis

What and How Are Kids Reading?

Some recent observations have caused me to worry about what and how kids are reading, writing, and thinking:

1.    The English teachers at our school have been noticing a gradual loss of reading and writing skills in the last five years.  While the “above-average” students still exist in good numbers, there seems to be more students with “very-low” reading competency.

2.   My colleagues and I on the 7th grade team have noticed more students each year who are struggling with vocabulary and reading comprehension skills, so that even in math, they struggle with understanding the questions asked of them.

3.  Everywhere you look outside of the classroom, students are reading a lot, but it’s mostly text messages, instant messages, emails, teen-related blogs and websites. Teens are often seen viewing screens yet are very rarely seen reading a book. (Some are calling this generation of kids the “children of the screen.”)

4.  Our Academic Dean gave all the English teachers a copy of chapter 2 of Mark Baurlein’s “The Dumbest Generation” to read.

5.  I watched PBS’s FrontLine documentary “Digital Nation” again, which shows how fragmented our digital lives have become and how hard it is for us to concentrate for sustained amounts of time on reading, writing, discussing, or anything.  We’re all becoming a little ADD because we are constantly interrupted.

Some Startling Statistics

– The literary rate (the percentage of those who read any books in a year) for 18-24 year-olds plummeted in the 20 years from 1982 to 2002 from 60% to 43%.

– In 2005, 15-24 year-olds spent just 8 minutes a day doing any kind of reading activity (back of cereal boxes, video game instructions, internet article, anything).

– The percent of 17 year-olds who “Never or hardly ever” read for fun more than doubled from 1984 to 2004, 9 percent to 19 percent.

– 25% of high school graduates who have gone to college never read a word of literature, sports, travel, politics, or anything else for their own enjoyment.

(All of the above statistics are from various studies cited in The Dumbest Generation by Mark Baurlein)

The New Attitude About Books

Here are some excerpts from Baurlein’s book specifically about reading.

“It’s a new attitude, this brazen disregard of books and reading. Earlier generations resented homework assignments, of course…but no generation trumpeted a-literacy (knowing how to read, but choosing not to) as a valid behavior of their peers…Today’s generation wears anti-intellectualism on its sleeve, pronouncing book reading an old-fashioned custom.  [One student said,] “My dad is still into the whole book thing. He has not realized that the Internet kind of took the place of that.”

“In her world, reading is counterproductive.  Time spent reading books takes away from time keeping up with youth vogues, which change every month.  To prosper in the hard-and-fast cliques in the schoolyard, the fraternities, and the food court, teens and 20-year-olds must track the latest films, fads, gadgets, YouTube videos, and television shows.  To know a little more about popular music and malls, to sport the right fashions, and host a teen blog, is a matter of survival… Heavy readers miss out on activities that unify their friends.”

And the problem is that it’s a zero-sum game.  You cannot have it all.  There are only so many hours in a week.  By adding all this technology into the daily life of teens, there is not enough time or motivation leftover for reading books.

What’s Causing This?

In my opinion, and many others’, it is caused by the meteoric rise of personal technology in our lives every day, all day.

Watch excerpts of the PBS FrontLine documentary “Digital Nation”
Section 1 – “Distracted by Everything”
Section 5 –  “The Dumbest Generation”

A New Literacy or a New Illiteracy?

There are new terms being invented and used by language teachers now: e-literacy, viewer literacy, and digital literacy.  This is to give credit for what kids are learning.  Many teachers are fully embracing all these new modes of communication, but at what cost?

Bauerlein responds with, “However much the apologist proclaim the digital revolution and hail teens for forging ahead, they have not explained a critical paradox.  If the young have acquired so much digital proficiency, and if the digital technology exercises their intellectual faculties so well, then why haven’t knowledge and skill levels increased accordingly? “

“If the Information Age solicits quicker and savvier literacies, why do so many new entrants into college and work end up in remediation?  If their digital talents bring the universe of knowledge into their bedrooms, why don’t they handle knowledge questions better?

“Digital habits have mushroomed, but reading scores for teens remain flat, and measures of scientific, cultural, and civic knowledge linger at abysmal levels.”


What Can Teachers and Parents Do About It?

A far as I can tell, the answer to this problem is not complex.  Kids need to read more books. They need to read books that are interesting to them and on their reading level.  This will yield wonderful results.

Benefits of Reading for Fun

Books afford young readers a place to slow down and reflect, to find role models, to observe their own turbulent feelings well-expressed, or to discover moral convictions missing from real situations.  Habitual readers acquire a better sense of plot and character, an eye for the structure of arguments, and an ear for style.”


“The more you read, the more you can read. Reading researchers call it the Matthew Effect, in which those who acquire reading skills in childhood read and learn later in life at a faster pace than those who do not.  They have larger vocabularies, which means they do not stumble with more difficult texts, and they recognize the pacing of stories and the form of arguments, an aptitude that does not develop as effectively with other media… A sinister corollary to the cognitive benefit applies: the more you don’t read, the more you can’t read. (Bauerlein)”

Here are some ideas we are kicking around at school:

–  Make a bulletin board with reading lists, book reviews, faculty favorites, and a “Who’s Reading What?” section.

–  Read a book at some point in the year in science and social studies, not just in language arts.

–  Construct a blog all about books, including student discussion forums and student-generated videos.

–  Give out prizes to those who are caught reading a book or for meeting a goals (i.e. 1,000 pages in a school year + 1,000 pages in a summer).

–  DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) time weekly, or even daily.  Teachers need to drop everything and read too, in order to be good role models.

–  Require all students to bring a reading book along with their daily planner to every class.  Give small rewards to those who do.

–  Setup a “Free Books” shelf or rack in a central location where students can exchange old books for different ones.

Remediation Possibilities for Weak Readers:

•    Tutoring
•    Summer Reading Class with a Reading Specialist
•    Remedial Reading Program for Home Use (home school curriculum)
•    “Classic Illustrated” graphic novels, Roald Dahl novels, and other easy and fun books that are not frustrating to weak readers.
•    Books on tape to aid the reading process

Your Help Needed

If you have any other ideas, I welcome your thoughts.  This is an open process for me.  I am looking for more ideas and thoughts on this topic.

So, how do you get your children or your students to read more?  How can we help kids embrace a balanced lifestyle in which reading has a place?

Author: Andy Kerckhoff

I'm a husband, father, teacher. I'm doing my best, wishing I could do better, and trying to help others to effectively lead kids through early adolescence.

4 thoughts on “The Reading Crisis”

  1. Great stuff. How tough do you think it would be to REALLY enforce hard and fast rule of no texting of any kind at school…….or dare I say, even no cell phones at school…..at all?

    I can hear all of the arguments in my head right now against such an idea and I can certainly would understand the backlash. But I would have 2 responses:
    1. Kids and parents did just fine for a couple hundred years without having a cell phone at school. If something is wrong, the school will get in touch with a parent.
    2. It will force the kids to talk to each other face to face. It will, if anything, force them to work on verbal communication skills, at least while they are at school. Not to mention it would probably prevent a lot of drama that goes on as a result of texting between students.

    I also like the point made by Baurlein about kids not getting any smarter, in fact maybe even dumber, despite their increase in technological abilities yet we make this type of knowledge seem like some great achievement.

    My fear is the same as all educators in that while we are saying we are changing the way we teach our kids because the times are changing, we are actually dummying down what we teach to them because that can’t or won’t be able to keep up. In other words, we are dropping to their level of ability instead of forcing them to rise to our level of expectation. Again, I know that thought is certainly not a new one and can also be made in other areas of education, but the mere fact that this argument can be made easier as time goes on, only validates it that much more.

  2. Like every new technology there is great opportunity for its use in both productive and destructive ways. For instance, the television and video player have been incredibly powerful teaching tools for good and for evil. The personal computer and the internet, similarly, have offered us exciting possibilities for profound good, as well as deep destruction. Ironically, the same was true for books, when the movable-type printing press got rolling 550 years ago. Books can be used for good or evil.

    My concern is that there is a great cultural shift occurring right now, in which personal technology is running over us, and the children are the first victims. We need moderation and meditation with regard to our use of texting, FaceBook, and all the other social (or anti-social) networking technologies. Our kids are “drinking the Kool-Aid” of the promises of technology without a clue to any of the consequences.

    This website gets hits daily from people searching for information and answers to the problem that so many kids are truly addicted to their personal technology. For most teens, the loss of their cell phone is the most traumatic event of their life – it’s scary to see kids meltdown over it. Some people are scared for their kids, but most parents are just unaware. I am hoping that we will keep trying to understand the reality of what is going on, as well share our ideas about how to bring wisdom to the discussion table.

  3. That is very interesting, You’re an overly professional blogger. I have joined your feed and look forward to in the hunt for more of your fantastic post. Additionally, I’ve shared your web site in my social networks

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