By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Emily Hager, Mia Gonzales, Najeeb Darwish
Growing up, Michelle Albaugh spent lazy afternoons on her couch, nose buried in a book. But that’s not the case with many of her students today.
“Teens don’t do that much anymore,” says the Sowers Middle School teacher. “Not long ago, kids could read The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and now they struggle with it. Some can’t read anything of great length and struggle to read a 10-page short story. Students toil reading anything that’s a novel if it isn’t popular literature like Twilight. It’s frustrating.”
While young children enjoy reading, enthusiasm frequently fades as they get older, say teachers worried about the trend. Reading becomes work, and reading for pleasure takes a back seat. Because older students don’t like reading as much, they don’t read as well, Albaugh observes.
Older youths are reading less in their free time than a generation ago, according to a report by the National Endowment for the Arts. The report said:
• Teens read less often and for shorter amounts of time compared with other age groups and with Americans of previous years.
• Less than one-third of 13-year-olds are daily readers, a 14 percent decline from 20 years earlier. Among 17-year-olds, the percentage of nonreaders doubled over a 20-year period.
• Those ages 15-24 spend two hours a day on TV, and only seven minutes of daily leisure time reading.
Kelly Gallagher, an English teacher at Magnolia High School in Anaheim, worries about a decline in reading he’s seen in students over the past decade.
“It’s not a California issue, it’s a national issue,” says the author of Readicide: How Schools are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It. “Teachers everywhere share the concern that kids aren’t reading enough.”
Blame NCLB and mandated testing
Luis Torres, a student at Cajon High School, discusses The Great Gatsby with classmates, focusing on themes of materialism, corruption and power.
“I enjoy reading now, but honestly, I didn’t enjoy it much before this class,” admits Torres. “Kids in general aren’t that interested in reading. We want to watch TV and play video games, for the most part.”
Jerry Tivey, his 11th-grade International Baccalaureate English teacher, believes reading is evolving due to technology.
“You have to look at the big picture, and ask what the ultimate purpose of reading is,” says Tivey, San Bernardino Teachers Association. “We read to get news, learn instructions or piece together something. We read a memo from the boss. I don’t think Twitter, Facebook or Internet news is any different; it’s just another way to get and exchange information. It may be useless information, but students are reading, processing and sharing with friends as they decide what to keep and what to delete from their account. We have to look outside the box when it comes to what we think reading is.”
Albaugh agrees students don’t read much for pleasure because they are watching more TV and spending time online. But the Huntington Beach Elementary Teachers Association member thinks changes in the way schools have been teaching reading under NCLB are also to blame.
At her school, students must read a 500-page textbook of anthologies (containing excerpts of novels and short stories) before reading an actual novel. So it’s not until end of the year that students can start To Kill a Mockingbird. Meanwhile, short stories or snippets of stories don’t hook them in.
Some say the anthology approach is like asking students to interpret a corner of a painting, so they don’t see meaning or the entire context and become frustrated. Several teachers say that once their class switched to mostly textbook anthologies, interest in reading waned among students.
“Students are reading for a test or because they have to meet a standard, and that is not inspiring a love of literature or the written word,” says Albaugh, noting that constantly interrupting the flow of a book every few minutes to instill a standard creates frustration and barriers between students and the story.
“We’ve always had anthologies in textbooks, but we used to teach half anthologies and half novels,” says Lynda Campfield, an English teacher at San Leandro High School. “After we went into Program Improvement, we taught three-quarters out of the textbook and one-quarter novels. It doesn’t really suit the students, and they don’t particularly care for it.”
Teachers don’t always choose what students will read because it will interest them. Instead, they choose reading material with “power standards” that will be on the test and improve scores. Campfield’s pacing guide stipulates that students must cover a story in their textbook about every three days.
“There is no time for rich discussions,” says the San Leandro Teachers Association member. “We have a test and move on to the next story. There is no enrichment project or group project to help students synthesize what they have read. They read story after story without really processing them. It’s not much fun. They don’t have time to be curious about something.”
Gallagher says “inane, mind-numbing” instructional practices kill the love of reading. Schools mostly emphasize academic reading and “functional reading,” so reading becomes associated with work, not pleasure.
“We are taking a poem or a novel and beating it to death. A novel ceases to be a novel and becomes a worksheet. When teachers are trying to teach all the standards in all of the books, the book itself gets lost. If I had to do all the things my students have told me they had to do over the past 10 years, I wouldn’t like reading either.”
“You have to have water in the pool if you are going to be a swimmer,” adds the Anaheim Secondary Teachers Association member. “That means you have to surround reluctant readers with good books. I believe that all kids like to read — they just don’t know it yet. If you give them good books they will read. Do you go home and curl up with a good textbook?”
No money for librarians/books
For the past 35 years, California has ranked near last in the country for school library funding, resulting in a reduced number of librarians, a limited number of books, and in some cases, no operating school library. Currently there is no designated school library funding. In 2011, less than one in four California schools was staffed with a librarian teacher.
“Teenagers are still reading, but the decline in library staffing means that fewer students have access to books and someone who can inspire them to select titles they will enjoy,” says Jane Lofton, librarian at Mira Costa High School and president of the California School Library Association. “For so many reluctant readers, all it takes is someone to match them with one perfect book to ignite a love of reading. With fewer librarians in schools, students have fewer chances of having that interaction that will convert them to readers.”
The decline in librarians has been accompanied by a decline in funds for library materials, says Lofton, Manhattan Beach Unified Teachers Association, so it’s difficult for libraries to update their collection of books.
Less exercise for the brain
Kelly Gallagher wrote Readicide after he brought up the topic of Al-Qaida for discussion in class and an honors student asked him to spell Al’s last name.
“Due to a lack of reading, kids come to class with limited prior knowledge and background. I could give them a political cartoon, and they wouldn’t understand the lesson if they don’t know Susan Rice is being interviewed for secretary of state. It’s worrisome. Studies show that adults who read regularly are more involved in their communities and civic life.”
Because the brain gets exercise from reading material that is challenging and extended, students are not exercising their brains the way they once did, he asserts.
“They lose the ability to maintain concentration. It becomes a chicken-or-the-egg thing; they won’t read long pieces, so we don’t assign long pieces. But it’s absolutely necessary that kids read challenging and difficult works, because that is when valuable brain exercise comes into play. And that includes the classics.”
Jonathan Brubaker, a seventh-grade English teacher at Mountain View Middle School in Beaumont, finds students are losing the ability to “endurance-read” because of anthologies.
“It’s like physical fitness, except it’s mental fitness. They lose the ability to push themselves through a difficult part of a book and then feel at the end it was worth it.”
Brubaker believes less reading results in reduced vocabulary; students tend to use words used in everyday conversations rather than a rich vocabulary gleaned from books. (Gallagher calls this phenomenon “word poverty” and says students are becoming more limited in their word usage due to less time reading.)
The biggest threat, says Brubaker, is a loss of critical thinking in teens.
“When you read, you imagine possible worlds and become a person who sees what other people don’t see. In a good book you are challenging your views, because it opens a window into something that is not your life and forces you to understand something unlike yourself. Reading not only makes you smarter, it makes you more compassionate and understanding.”
Turning the page
The only sound in Jonathan Brubaker’s classroom is the ticking clock. Students are intently reading novels. Their teacher is also lost in a book — Hard Times by Charles Dickens. Silent sustained reading happens regularly during the beginning of class.
The Beaumont Teachers Association member reads alongside students to set an example. “If you aren’t reading, you are the biggest distraction in the room.”
“Reading was boring before this class,” admits Alexis Prior. “Now that we’re forced to read, I like it. I was scared I wouldn’t finish a book in a month, but it’s easy if I pick a good book.”
Members offered other ways to encourage reading:
• Surround students with interesting books.
• Ask parent groups to support a classroom library.
• Ask students to briefly share with classmates why their book is a good read.
• Encourage parents to spend “family time” reading together and provide books that interest their teens.
• Talk to students about books that had an impact on your life.
• Tell teens why they should read. For example, reading helps fight oppression and paves the way for college and successful careers.