Books fall out of favor with American children, pre-teens and teenagers

Dr. John Miller

Dr. John Miller

A couple of weeks ago, two SDSU English professors and I had an opportunity to attend a White House Symposium on Women of the West.

For two hours on a Tuesday morning, about 150 people gathered in the East Room of the White House to hear a stimulating series of talks on three outstanding women writers?Willa Cather, Edna Ferber and Laura Ingalls Wilder?and to listen to talks from several contemporary authors whose work has been inspired by these women.

The program was the third in a series of salutes to America’s authors, sponsored by Laura Bush. The First Lady, a former schoolteacher, has made the promotion of literacy and a love of reading a major goal of hers. This is to be applauded.

In our stopover at the Minneapolis airport, I visited the newsstand and picked up a copy of “Book” magazine and read it on the flight to Washington. The issue included a special report on “Literacy in America.”

You won’t be surprised when I tell you that the lead article described our current situation as one of “crisis.” Someday, perhaps, we will be able to assess education in terms other than “crisis.” Nevertheless, I was curious to read about the current crisis as described by the author of the article, Patrick Clinton.

First, the good news.

Clinton argues that the literacy crisis is not one of falling standards. The reading scores of 12th-graders have remained stable for the past three decades and it is hard to compare with the period before that. However, expectations and requirements are going up, and students are having a hard time keeping up.

The bad news in Clinton’s view is, “The typical American high school curriculum assumes that kids are able to take in new knowledge independently by reading. But something like three-quarters can’t, at least not at any useful level.”

What gives?

Fewer kids are reading for pleasure these days. In 1984, 19 percent of 12th-graders said they never read for pleasure; by 1998, the figure had jumped to 28 percent. Further, it appears that the kinds of things that are being read have changed: “more short takes, e-mail and Web pages, and less expository prose, serious analysis and literary fiction.”

The International Reading Association did a study showing that typical teens scanned magazines, played video games, and got involved in chat rooms and other activities involving the written word, “but they did very little reading in the traditional sense.”

Now, with accountability and high-stakes tests on the front burner, schools and teachers are getting a message: “Teach the content. And that they do. Many have become quite ingenious at using lectures, handouts, class projects and activities to convey content about history and science and government without requiring kids to read. In some classrooms, the textbook is an occasional supplement. In many, it isn’t used at all.”

Are books, textbooks, and reading in the traditional sense becoming obsolete?

Does it matter?