The most frequent question I’m asked by parents as a high school English literature teacher is, “What more can my student do to progress?”. More often than not, the simple answer to that question is, “Read more and read widely”.
Over the past decades, researchers have discovered the trend that as children age, their interest in reading declines, particularly beyond the age of eight years old. 62 percent of children between six and eight years love or like reading books for fun, compared with the dwindling number of 46 percent of 15 to 17 year olds.
It is easy to point fingers at today’s emerging digital culture and blame it on the accessibility to technologies in the form of smartphones, mobile devices and gaming as the cause. While they certainly play their part, I feel, they are not the only driving factor.
The over-scheduled teen
Students today, particularly teens, lead far busier lives than we ever did. Between balancing school, homework, friendships, family commitments and extracurricular responsibilities, it is little wonder why we continue to see a downward trend in reading for pleasure. With the numerous obligations students face today, time eats into our lives leaving little room to simply read for pleasure.
School plays a part too. Many students associate reading with school work. In many schools around the world, mandatory texts are selected according to what are ostensibly outdated literacy curriculums focused on a common set of ‘what should be read’ texts. Even for an avid reader, being forced to slog through a dense and perhaps, incomprehensible book would inevitably cause some resentment. While the purpose of these mandatory reads is for their educational value, it is hard not to see that sometimes the message sent is that reading is perceived by teens as a chore.
Hence, should students be allowed to read what they like, or should they be encouraged to read specific books - ones that are challenging and edifying, books that are considered to have higher educational value?
Reading for pleasure should be guilt-free
A common debate amongst literacy teachers as well as a big challenge for teachers and parents alike is not simply to get teens to read, but also to develop opportunities that will facilitate reading pleasure. It’s one thing for students to trudge through multiple set texts for school, but will they open another book when they get home at the end of the day?
Too often than not, there is little wiggle room left when it comes to reading for educational purposes. There is no doubt that reading provides important benefits across a variety of academic disciplines. I know that reading literature, history, science, and the rest of the liberal-arts canon helps inform young minds. But rather than shovelling mandatory books into the arms of our teens, we need to encourage our students to read whatever they find interesting, and let their imagination come to life.
We too easily place emphasis on what should be read and what should not be read or isn’t a ‘serious read’. A sense of guilt can form when ‘lowbrow’ books are selected by students, as if reading The Hunger Games over Macbeth means you don’t appreciate good literature, or your mind isn’t sophisticated enough.
Reading for pleasure is just as important as reading to inform. I think one of the many beauties of reading is about escaping and being able to live in another world, then another and another... so let the kids just have a go. Flexibility should be the key, as at the end of the day, we want them to enjoy reading.
When the aim of reading becomes to learn, and not to have fun, we find ourselves in a predicament. By consistently bringing something transactional in to play, it pollutes the reading experience and destroys the pleasure. We need to forge the necessary link to pleasure and need, not just a means to an end.
Giving our teens the autonomy to pick up a book and read what they enjoy - free from review, analysis and assessment, free from judgement of educational value, and free from the critical eyes of a teacher or parent - is a cornerstone to the beginning of student growth and the beginning of a healthy relationship with reading.