Today’s Teen Reads for Pleasure, Just Like Grandma Used to Read

January 21, 2012 — Leave a comment

Teenagers today read for pleasure just as much their parents-or grandparents- read when they were teens. This means that after all the time and effort dedicated by schools and publishers to increase student reading, the statistics show no increase in the number of teenagers who read for pleasure?

I find this a proposition just a little depressing.

65 years and no improvement in teens reading for pleasure? Why not?

An article in the January 2012 Language Magazine: The Journal of Education and Communication by Stephen Krashen titled “Reading for Pleasure” looks at data about the reading habits of high school students gathered from 1946 to the present in order to explain “why we should stop scolding teenagers and their schools.”  Krashen is a linguist and researcher in second language acquisition who promotes the use of free voluntary reading  which he says “is the most powerful tool we have in language education, first and second.”

Krashen looks at questionnaires given to 17 year olds by  National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)  that asked if they read in their spare time.  Using this data, he determines that despite some improvement between 1946 and 1984, there has been a decline in teenage reading from 1984-2008, resulting in no net gain in reading for the past 65 years. He concludes that, “Contrary to popular opinion, there is no evidence that teenagers are less engaged in literacy activities today than teenagers of the past. Teenagers today do just as much book reading as teenagers did 65 years ago, and it appears that they are more involved in reading and writing in general when we include computer use in the analysis.”

That conclusion is really depressing. There have been considerable efforts to increase student reading on several fronts beginning in earnest with Rudolph Flesch’s Why Johnny Can’t Read: And What You Can Do about It  published in 1955. While this book dealt primarily with the methodology of teaching reading (phonics), the book’s message about the importance of literacy spike a nation’s interest in improving reading skills-an important step in student reading for pleasure. On the education front, the inclusion of   SSR (silent sustained reading) during the school day began over 30 years ago. One of the tenets of SSR is that students have the opportunity to choose materials to read. The practice of SSR has travelled from elementary to many middle and high schools in order to respond to student demands for choice. Finally, on the publishing front, there has been an explosion of  children and young adult literature in the past fifteen years: 3,000 young adult novels were published in 1997;  30,000 titles in 2009. In 2009, total sales exceeded 3 billion.

So, these quick examples suggest there is evidence there is heightened awareness about student reading for over 50 years, there is time provided in school, and there are materials published. Yet, there has been no increase in teenagers reading for pleasure?

Well, Krashen looks at the combined reading and writing habits of teenagers and notes that teenagers in the 2005 and 2010 NAEP reports spent more time on written interaction than on entertainment. Written interaction referred to social networking sites, and these figures are probably on the increase as access to the Internet on mobile devices increases. He writes that, “Communication with their peers is clearly important to them. In terms of total ‘voluntary reading and writing,’ teenagers in the 2005 report and the 2010 report are nearly even.” He concludes that, “’Kids these days’ appear to be reading and writing on their own an average of about an hour and a half a day.”

But student communication with their peers can be limited in vocabulary and scope. A recent student in Britain by Lancaster University’s Professor Tony McEnery who conducted research creating analysis of a database of teenage speech that suggested British teenagers had a vocabulary of just over 12,600 words compared with the nearly 21,400 words that the average person aged 25 to 34 uses. In other words, communication with peers does not increase vocabulary, and this study did not include texting adaptations of vocabulary with acronyms or shortened spelling. Yes, this study was conducted in Britain, but it is unlikely there is much difference in the vocabulary of American teens, other than that lovely accent.

Krashen is very clear to point out that students “are reading peer writing, not Hamlet or the Federalist Papers. And they are writing to each other, not composing essays comparing and contrasting Edgar Allen Poe with Longfellow.” But, I am not comforted that Krashen offers social communication as voluntary reading despite his claim that students experience cognitive development when they write on topics of deep personal concern.

I do agree, however, with Krashen’s claim  that “the true problem in literacy is not related to convincing reluctant teenagers to read: It is providing access to books for those living in poverty.”  I would go further to suggest that all schools, economically privileged or not, need to create reading material rich environments for students.

A classroom book cart in Grade 9 with high interest titles

Our 9th grade students are provided SSR time twice weekly (20-25 minutes/day) to read for pleasure. They may choose what they want to read. Often, a student will arrive in class without materials or, having just completed a book, looking for a recommendation. Our classroom libraries (book carts) are filled with high interest used books purchased for exactly this moment, and our school library is now connected to Overdrive which allows students to check out an ebook on a mobile device. This ability to capitalize on this moment of student’s interest with reading materials is critical to a successful reading program. The hope is that this will lead to continued reading for pleasure outside the classroom.

Krashen’s review of the data is depressing; I would have expected that given the amount of attention given to increasing teen reading for pleasure that there should have been a steady increase in reading habits from generation to generation.He cautions that negative attention given to this topic, including “dissing high school students”, is not the way to increase reading for pleasure. Teenagers by nature, regardless of their generation, should come to reading for pleasure through availability AND  choice. Just ask your mom, or grandma, can we do better?

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