Rebuilding a Culture of Readers

Many of you have heard about the study recently released by Common Sense Media that shows US kids and teens are reading less proficiently, less often, and less for pleasure than the same age groups did 30 years ago.   If you’d like to see more details (and you should), please check out the summary article here or the full report PDF file here.

OK, so are you totally shocked?

No, of course not.  You kinda suspected that kids were reading less, right? I mean, there’s streaming video and social media; smart phones and Nintendo DS to distract them. Kids and teens 30 years ago  didn’t have that.

30 years ago, I was seven. If I was lucky, I watched Electric Company with my brother and sister after school and Dallas when Grandma was babysitting. (Sorry to rat you out, Grandma.) Otherwise, I played outside, secretly destroyed Barbies with my brother’s G.I. Joe tank, or read.

So back to the report. Should you be concerned?

Heck yeah!

And if you’re unconvinced, let me just mention that the study also showed striking gaps in reading proficiency and activity based on gender and cultural demographics. The report states that

  • “18% black and 20% Latino fourth-graders are rated as “proficient” in reading compared with 46% of white kids at that age (this gap has been relatively unchanged over two decades).”

That’s something we as a country thought we had been remedying for years. Oops.

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you may be sitting in the proverbial choir loft, singing “hallelujah” as I preach, but thinking to yourself  “Not my kids. My house is full of books. We read every night.”

If that’s the case, congratulations! I’m extremely glad to hear that – and proud of you for making reading a priority. Seriously – gold stars on your parent chart!

If that’s not you, but you wish it was, check out my weekly Raising Readers Monday posts on this blog, search #raisingreaders on twitter, or check out my newly updated Childhood Literacy Resources for Families on my Links to Like page.

Whichever group you fall into, I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but here goes:

Whatever you are doing is not nearly enough!

Why? Because this can’t be about just your kids anymore. Let’s even put aside the startling finding that, if things continue as the study suggests,  your book-hungry 9-year-old is likely to read for pleasure only 1-2 times per year at age 17. Let’s assume you are going to do what it takes to keep your kids engaged with reading.

What about everyone else?

Even with you dedicated caregivers doing the best for your kids, we are left with a future with fewer readers. Much fewer. And we need a country (heck, a world!) full of readers. Your kids, my kids, and all the kids who aren’t lucky enough to have caregivers who are learning, thinking, reading about the implications of this study need to be readers.

Can you imagine a country divided into those who can read proficiently and those who hardly read at all? Can you envision that it falls largely along lines based on race? Or socio-economic status? To go truly dystopian novel-esque for a moment, can you picture a dual class society where the readers can deceive, control and bully the non-readers? Where the people who can and do read simply give those who can’t a bread-and-circus of media entertainment and limit their social and economic mobility?

OK, not the most horrific image of a dual class structure. But who doesn’t like a little Downton Abbey?

Historically, it’s happened before. For centuries at a time. It could happen again.

Perhaps that’s paranoid of me.  I can put that thought away and still have plenty of concerns.

Columnist Frank Bruni of the New York Times wrote a great op-ed piece discussing what reading does for the brain (and heart, and soul) that other entertainment doesn’t. You can read it right here. He sites, among other things, research that shows reading and intelligence to be closely correlated (chicken or egg – hard to say).

Other studies have shown increased neural activity in people who read daily; improved focus and concentration in those who read regularly; improved empathy in those who read more.  Reading activates more areas of the brain and creates more connections between different areas of the brain than TV viewing.  If you want to know more, here’s another great NYT article on the neuroscience of your brain on fiction!

Want more reasons reading is important? Lindsay, teacher, mother and blogger of Everyday Is An Adventure, has a great list here.  Among her top ten reasons kids should be reading more: improved vocabulary, language skills and writing skills; which translates to improvement in nearly all school subjects and in the workforce!

I’m not saying TV, video games, and other pursuits are bad. I’m saying we have to consider that an epidemic of apathy about falling reading proficiency and decreased time spent reading for pleasure will have serious societal consequences. With so many technologies and entertainments vying for our time – and so many of them easy to access for people of all ages and backgrounds – making reading a priority takes a real effort.  A conscious choice. A social shift.

Think about how tough it can be to choose to eat healthier, feed your family healthier, support organizations that help whole communities eat healthier.  But we know – through great educational efforts – about our country’s obesity epidemic and about how important healthy eating is to both individuals and to our society as a whole.

We also know now how crucial reading is to us as individuals and as a society.

We know there is an epidemic of poor reading proficiency and interest.

We have to put down the Big Mac, pick up the fresh fruit, and remind everyone how beneficial, enjoyable, and wonderful it is!

So, what do we do?

  1. Make reading a priority in your home. Let your kids see you reading. Read with them. Get them to read. Talk about reading to them, to each other, to your friends.
  2. Make this topic something we are ALL talking about. At school pick-up, at the t-ball game, at the doctor’s office, at happy hour. Get those parents and caregivers who aren’t concerned to BE concerned.  Share this kind of article on social media. Talk to your school and librarian. Encourage your favorite radio DJ to talk about a book instead of a TV show.

    “Aren’t we gorgeous and hip?” “Yes, and we all love to read!”

  3. Use technology to support reading – rather than seeing them as forces battling for your time. Book trailers are an awesome way to get kids excited about books. So are audiobooks and interactive e-books.  Teens and tweens love to connect on social media – so get them connecting on Goodreads, Bookopolis, and other platforms for sharing reviews and recommendations. What if you posted on Facebook what you read last night, instead of what character from Mean Girls you are most like? It says a lot more about you, anyway. Let’s try to make “shelfies”  as popular as selfies! (If you don’t know, a shelfie is a pic of what you’re reading right now, or what’s on your bookshelf to read next. I’m thinking celebrity shelfies could be the next big thing.)

    photo (1)

    Here’s what’s currently on my bedside table. I bet you know me better already.

  4. Support organizations that help educate and inform those less fortunate than you on the importance of reading. Make sure new parents – no matter their educational background –  know to read to their babies from birth and keep reading every day.  Help keep libraries open and active and exciting to their communities. Get books into the hands of parents, teachers, kids and teens. My Links to Like page has a list of my favorite literacy non-profits.


Have more reasons reading matters? Share them below.

Disagree with me? I want to hear that, too.

Know of websites or organizations that help support literacy? I’d love their links.

Want to keep the discussion going? Tweet, share, re-blog, write your own thoughts on the matter.

Don’t let this fall through the cracks!