The State of Young Readers in America
Oh, those punk kids today! With their iPhones and hippity-hop music and My Little G.I. Joe the Explorers! In our day, we read books all the time, every time! But they don’t, and they’re stupid! Stupid, I tells ya!
Except not really.
Look, if this country is headed downhill at the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow, it isn’t entirely the result of children failing to engage with literature. Could parents and schools do a better job of encouraging them to read? Absolutely. And we’ll get to that. But that doesn’t necessarily chime the death knell for America, either. Especially considering how the literacy rate continues hovering around 99%. That last 1% needs closing, of course. All United States residents deserve opportunities to learn how to read. However, to tout it as indicative that the country suffers from an incoming collapse of stability and morality epitomizes the concept of hyperbole. Truth be told, the reality involves some negative trends that need some addressing, but plenty of driven organizations and individuals devote themselves to overturning them. We can’t dismiss concerns. We also can’t declare them signifiers of an incoming societal apocalypse, either.
What Needs Fixing
Reading for fun is dropping: According to the National Endowment for the Arts, 13% of 13-year-olds and 19% of 17-year-olds rarely (or never) read for fun
Limited access: Youngsters from middle- and upper-class neighborhoods so often take their libraries and well-funded schools for granted, as they enjoy far more access to literature than their counterparts in lower-income areas. In fact, the ratio currently stands at roughly 13 books for every child in a resource-rich region, but one book for every 300 children in the resource-deprived equivalents. Even in an era where educational trends have begun veering toward the democratic in the form of open courseware, students still must watch their grades — not to mention opportunities — unjustly suffer as a result of their socioeconomic bracket.
Parental Involvement: Children whose parents involve themselves (but not to helicopter extremes) in their educations enjoy higher grades, improved reading comprehension, the ability to read at an earlier age, and a greater chance of getting into and finishing college. It’s science. Science we’ve linked right up there for you. In fact, reading acumen drops by up to 74% in students receiving poor support at home. The most engaged parents hail from middle- and upper-class backgrounds and are college graduates of biological children, because they’re the demographic with enough resources to do so, not because the lower socioeconomic brackets just don’t care about their kids.
A Couple of Fixes
Embrace digital media: OK, stubborn traditionalists. This is the part that might just rankle you up a little, and you’re just going to have to deal with it. Starting with the television and moseying on into the digital age, Americans have started shifting toward a visual cultural paradigm.This is not a bad thing.No, seriously. Literature as an art form will never die, but it will liquidly alter its shape to adapt to its surroundings, like all other enduring conduits of human expression. On a more low-fi level, savvy educators have seized upon this trend and started incorporating comic books with literary merit (Yes, naysayers, those exist. Maus won a Pulitzer, after all.) into the syllabi; blending art with words engages a more diverse selection of learning styles and may even enhance knowledge retention in some students. Comics don’t “dumb down” reading.
Look to libraries: No institutions are doing more to nurture literacy in the young ‘uns than public libraries. When it comes to accessibility, even some of the more resource-deprived have found room in their budgets to start offering ebook readers, tablets, and downloadable books for locals to check out. But even beyond that, they bring in patrons through programming like sensory storytime for children on the autism spectrum, completely free services for the homeless and the underprivileged (drives, job and computer training, resume reviews, etc.), and even multimedia lounges and other spaces and events targeting teens.
Better interaction with parents and teachers: First of all … English teachers, you are fabulous and all, but you seriously need to stop peddling only one interpretation of a text to your students. The beauty of literature lays largely in its open nature, with each reader’s unique experiences and observations creating a different approach and perspective. Imagine how disillusioning it must be to coagulate this viable insight, only to be automatically dismissed as “EEEEEHHHHNNNNKKKK!!!!! WRONG!!!!!” when it pops up in class discussions. Uniformity kills. Prevent burnout in students by valuing what they bring to the talks and, more importantly, selecting a diverse range of books, poems, essays, and short stories for consideration.