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Kids Don't Read As Much Today - So What?


Q. What's all the fuss about kids not reading a lot of books any more? Don't they learn even more from all the other media - TV, movies, music, videos, DVDs, CD-ROMs and so forth? They have to think to understand what's going on while they're watching or listening. Isn't that the point of reading, anyway?


Isn't it ironic? We have so many more books and libraries now than at any time in the history of the world, and yet young people are reading less and less every year.


It's possible that the majority of students are now leaving high school without having read even one nonfiction book. They may read excerpts here and chapters there, with brief sections of textbooks and a little online research.


But rarely does anybody ever read a complete nonfiction book, with exposition or explanation of facts on one particular subject, that isn't just "for fun," or for literary analysis. As it is, the fiction books that are assigned in many schools are so "dumbed down" compared to the books assigned in past generations that it's downright alarming to anyone who loves the world of ideas and wants most people to live there, as they do.


Don't blame the teachers: they are forced to water down their assignments because kids either can't read, or won't read, the way kids used to.


Dr. Berniece Cullinan of New York University studied fifth graders, and found that 50% read four minutes a day or less, and yet the same group of children averaged 130 minutes a day of TV watching.


Of course, some students, encouraged by their parents, and helped by their librarian, read a lot of books on their own. Homeschoolers, especially, are strong there, and homeschooled children may read 10 or even 100 times as many books as their counterparts in organized classrooms, simply because their schedules are flexible and free for reading.


Reasons for the current discomfort and disdain for reading are many. Ironically, they include the method of reading instruction in most schools: whole language, the "progressive" method, which focuses on what words look like, instead of showing kids how letters come together into words and words come together into sentences under certain linguistic rules, which is the traditional method of intensive, explicit, systematic phonics. Whole language handicaps kids to the point where grade-level reading by the late primary grades is too "hard" or "boring" for them - because there aren't any more pictures to "read."


Today's kindergartners and first-graders are being taught reading skills the way 3- and 4-year-olds used to be taught a generation ago. One reading expert called it "like pulling the wings off a butterfly," the way language instruction has been dumbed down in recent years. When primary teachers let kids "read" books by looking at the pictures, put "word walls" of index cards up on the walls for them to memorize, and allow them to slough off mispronunciations and misspellings, they are contributing to illiteracy and disdain for written language, whether they know it or not.


The question is, what are the consequences for the majority of students, who are no longer reading very much? How are their brains different from students who read a lot?


Knowledge base. A person picks up knowledge by listening to others and watching TV, of course, but there's no way you can obtain anything above bare-bones knowledge without reading on a regular basis.


Vocabulary: the typical TV vocabulary contains just a minute fraction of the three-quarters of a million words in the English language. So yes, TV watching really does stunt your growth. If you don't read very much, you'll never know the vast majority of the words that can help you make your ideas clearly understood. For that matter, your ideas themselves won't be clear, even to you. You will become indifferent to the importance of precision in words, incapable of understanding or expressing opinions about complex events, and incompetent of holding any job that requires intellectual effort.


Comprehension: one of the best gifts of reading is that it helps build the brain's architecture so that you can create mental images just from looking at words, and those images are entirely your own invention. Understanding and imagination both spring from the process of reading. In contrast, when you look at an image, you are stuck with that image, and with the implications of it, instead of being free to absorb the input and create your own impression or memory of it, as you do with reading written words.


Concentration: they call the mind that has been reared mostly on video and audio instead of text "the two-minute mind." Kids who haven't attained the mental organization that comes from reading are not trained to buckle down and stick with a sustained chain of thought. They get distracted, just like the scenes change constantly in TV. No wonder there's an attention deficit problem in our society.


Synthesis: without reading books with lots of content, characters, settings and situations, it becomes difficult for a young person to learn about things in the "real" world and boil them down to a main idea. You can't draw inferences if you have no basis of comparison. TV watching is passive, while reading is active. TV watching is being entertained, while reading requires thinking.


Expression: a poor and inexperienced reader will read aloud in a monotone, indicating that the sense of the text is not getting through, and hampering communication since no one wants to listen.


Homework: An excellent, though scary, book about this is Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think - and What We Can Do About It, by Jane M. Healy.


By Susan Darst Williams Reading 08 2008

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