A Reading Dilema?

As I mentioned earlier in the week, a recent poll conducted by the Associated Press determined that, on average, 25% of adults surveyed didn’t read a single book last year. On an impulse, I asked the students of one of my ninth grade English classes if they read a book that wasn’t required by school in the last year. I was sadly surprised to find that the 1 to 4 ratio determined by the AP poll for adults was too low for my students, of which 8 of 20 said they don’t read unless it is assigned reading.

The biggest contributor to this may well be the very thing that has the potential to contribute the most to our current educational system: technology. We have become a society of instant-on information. We can customize and tailor the information that makes it way to us, and have that information at our fingertips for immediate access at any time, day or night. DVR and TiVo manage our television needs. Podcasts and RSS feeds help us collect news and information from all the corners of the internet. And it all happens while we sleep, or work. Information is gathered until we are ready for it.

This very moment I have over 15 hours of television on my DVR waiting for me to find time to watch. Shows like Monk, Saving Grace, and Dr. Who are automatically recorded and sorted. I’ll get to them when I have time. I also have 144 unread items in Google Reader from sources who report on topics I am interested in. I don’t have to wait through an evening news broadcast for the news I want, I can power up the PC and have it waiting for me.

All this information, and the technology that surrounds its creation and delivery, has changed the methodologies behind education and entertainment alike. The students I queried wanted something visual, something immediate. “It takes too long” and “it’s too hard to find something good” were common answers as to why they don’t read.

Another answer, though, concerned me more: “Reading is boring.” This reflects more than just the influence of technology. If we (we being educators and parents) want to instill reading fiction as a viable pastime and hobby that will continue outside and beyond the classroom, we need to make sure that what they are reading exciting, interesting material. An understanding of “The Classics” is important, but what good does that do if it simply comes just to be regurgitated verbatim and then forgotten the week after the exam is taken or essay is written? Foster the desire first, and the understanding will not only come, but, in theory at least, will come easier.

All that sounds good on paper, as the saying goes, but I have to wonder if things are really as bad as the USA Today article seems to make out. There isn’t any kind of comparison to previous polls, so there is no way of knowing if there is any kind of trend. Also, a simple turn of the data and you can also say something like “75% of Americans read at least one book last year.” Suddenly, the numbers sound much more positive. I would imagine, for example, that 100 years ago, when reading was one of the few forms of mass entertainment available, that 75% of American adults weren’t even literate, let alone read at least one book a year.

So while yes, the numbers presented are a bit distressing, especially for an English teacher and author, it really shouldn’t be that surprising, nor that alarming.

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