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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Reading 2.0

Mary Beth Hertz

K-8 Technology Teacher in Philadelphia, PA

Many educators are worried about how technology is affecting the amount of reading that students are doing. They notice that:

  • Students are struggling to read and comprehend longer texts.
  • Students are struggling to read deeply.
  • Many students report that they don’t read outside of school at all.

There are a few contributing factors to this, technology being one and high-stakes testing being another. We could also argue that kids aren't reading less, they're reading differently.

Non-Readers, Occasional Readers and Digital Readers

Just recently, over 100 children's authors, including the likes of Judy Blume, signed a letter to President Obama arguing that "Our public school students spend far too much time preparing for reading tests and too little time curling up with books that fire their imaginations." I can attest to the fact that many of my former students rarely read novels and equated "passages" with reading. For weeks on end, teachers were only allowed to present their students with texts that resembled those on the PSSA test. This can't help but have a lasting effect on students' desire to read for pleasure or read something longer than a test passage.

A 2013 Nielsen Book survey of 2,000 British families found that "among 11- to 17-year-olds, non-readers grew from 13 percent to 27 percent between 2012 and 2013." While the study did not define "non-readers," it defined "occasional readers" as those "who read 1-3 times a month." While these numbers are alarming, Nielsen found that 33 percent of children said they were reading digitally and 28 percent said that they would like to. In response to these numbers, Jo Henry from Nielsen Book stated, "There is something around we're not making it attractive enough to do it: there's not much aspirational stuff there. We all hoped the attraction of digital reading would bring lighter readers into the market. But they're still less likely than the heavier-reading teenagers to be reading e-books and apps." Still, according to the survey, 60 percent of children report that they are reading for pleasure on a weekly basis.

So what does it all mean?

For one, many children report that they would like to read digitally, but the current digital market is not attracting new readers or making children read more. That said, a large percentage of children are still saying that they read for pleasure. Perhaps we need to take a closer look at the technologies we currently employ for young readers. There are children who love to read and want to read digitally.

Lastly, research has shown that people read differently when they are reading on the web. A reader's eyes move differently around a webpage than the page of a book. Does this change how we read, and does it affect how young people read books or e-books? Do young people now have to code-switch each time they switch from reading a screen to reading a book? This could be an added hurdle.

Recognizing the Options

So how do we engage kids as readers?

A few ideas come to mind. Many young people have taken on writing fan fiction based on their favorite books. The website Harry Potter Fan Fiction has over 80,000 stories written by Harry Potter fans. These young people are not just reading stories, but writing them, too.

Along that same thread, self-publishing through e-books or a blog can engage readers. A well-maintained and cared-for blog can easily become a book. Also, if a blogger wants more people to read his or her blog, he or she must actively read other blogs. Personal blogs tend to get their inspiration from personal interests. This can be a great way to introduce books into a young blogger's repertoire.

Many young people use social media to connect with their friends and stay on top of what's going on in the world. Teaching them how to follow articles and news events on social media can lead to deeper conversations about global and local issues. If a student has a personal interest in a particular topic or issue, there is most likely a book they could read about the topic.

Of course, the simplest way to get kids reading more is by giving them exposure to a variety of topics and genres, and by giving them time to explore their passions. Inquiry leads to research, and research leads to reading. If we're forcing students to read boring test passages over and over, and teaching them that the only purpose behind reading is to perform on a test, then we have only ourselves to blame if students aren't reading for pleasure. We also need to begin to accept new forms of reading as what they are . . . reading. Young people have more reading options today than ever before, and these forms of reading require them to read differently. The biggest, most important question is, "Are kids reading for pleasure?" If the answer is yes, then we are on the right path.

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