KIDS DON’T READ
Sorry, it’s true.
I must apologize ahead of time to all the educators who devote so much time and energy to teaching our children. The vast majority of teachers, principals, and administrators I’ve met over the years are truly dedicated to the educational profession, and they sincerely want positive results.
The Bad News
In one area – reading and writing – and despite these good intentions, educators of all stripes have failed – and with regard to boys, that failure can only be described as miserable, utter, complete, and epic; and the situation is getting worse. Way back in 2002, Wilhelm and Smith found in their wonderful study on boys and literacy [referenced by K. Hyatt (2002, “Reading Boys”, U. Main Today, 2 (1), pp. 12-13] that almost none of the boys in the study rejected literacy, even though they did not enjoy reading or writing. What they almost universally rejected was school literacy.
In other words, kids hate reading in school, not reading.
More Bad News: Literacy – Yes! Expertise – No!
According to Stats Canada, while 15-year old Canadian kids do well compared to other countries, their literacy skills are only slightly above functional. In other words, they can read well enough to function in modern society, but that’s it. Expertise is a rare commodity. As well, the divergence between boys and girls is stark. Girls read much better than boys.
Our teachers are not to blame – and neither are our principals. It’s how kids are taught reading and writing in school, and the role technology plays in our kids’ lives; and, it’s time we accepted this fact and tried to fix the problem – rather than pay lip service to it.
The educational system does a poor job of teaching reading and writing; this fact is widely acknowledged; and, yet no significant changes have been made to the process. So while I acknowledge the dedication of our educators, I believe I also have the right to be frustrated by this lack of success.
The culprit: that’s easy – technology and our addiction to it. Technology is a drug, and kids cannot resist it.
Kids have no trouble watching YouTube, television, or movies for hours. They cannot sit and read for more than ten minutes without squirming, if they’ll read at all.
Kids read poorly because they don’t practice much. How good a reader can you be when all you read are Facebook posts, texts, and cheat sheets for video games?
- Is there a kid left in the world who can write in cursive?
- Is there a kid in the world who can write with a pen and paper for an hour – for half-an-hour – for ten minutes?
Don’t Blame Kids, though – Adults are Just as Bad
Adults love to denigrate the youth – for their bad manners, bad clothing, bad taste in music, and for their lack of culture. But that ship has sailed, and their culture is very much ours when it comes to technology. Anyone born in the 70s and on has essentially been educated in the same system, and the writing and reading skills among the 40-and under crowd are, in general, no better than those among the millennials or the under 20s.
Let’s take writers as a case study. Almost every writer today writes with a computer (present company excluded).
But ever wonder how Charles Dickens did it?
Using a quill with a nib and ink, over the course of 34 years, he managed to write 15 of the greatest novels in English, plus the Christmas Stories, plus short stories and non-fiction works, plus innumerable newspaper articles.
The output is massive by any standard – and he did it without the aid of the modern writer’s most essential tool: the computer.
Dickens didn’t need a computer to write magnificent prose, and neither did the other masters – Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Balzac, Cervantes – the list is obviously too long to include – and I think the point is made. Yet, writers are all addicted to computers, not because computers produce better work – they self-evidently do not (if you know of any current authors writing at the level of the great writers of the 19th century, let me know). Writers use computers because it makes writing faster and easier.
Faster and easier? Is that the magic formula for great literature? Is that a reason to rely on computers to write?
Easier and Faster – Can Books Compete?
Our kids’ addiction to the computer is based on the same thing: it’s faster and easier to spend your time using technology than it is to read, and it’s definitely easier than writing with a pen and paper.
Unfortunately, kids do not respond to the medical evidence that their minds will develop in more sophisticated ways if they read a lot. They actually don’t care. They also don’t care that kids who read better are more successful than kids who read poorly. They really don’t. Bottom line is kids take pride in rejecting what adults try to force them to do, which essentially dooms any attempt to force kids to learn to read and write well.
Tough Love – The Only Answer
Coercion is necessary, however. We have to overcome the addictive qualities of technology. That starts with admitting we all have a problem. Our entire society has decided that anything that allows us to do something faster or easier is therefore, by definition, good. Our entire society has ignored that sometimes faster and easier means doing it badly.
For reading and writing, faster and easier means kids do it for functional reasons only – that is, they read and write because they need to function in society, but not because it speaks to an important and vital part of culture and what it means to be appreciate literature and art.
Drastic times call for drastic actions, right? So where are the drastic actions for our kids literacy?
- Why do we have computer time in schools?
- Why are schools putting more and more computers into the curriculum?
- Why do teachers insist kids do project work on computers.
- Why do teachers reword Google searches and cut-and-paste projects?
The self-evident answers speak to the disease. Teachers are as addicted to technology as kids. It’s easier to read and mark a project when the text is printed off a computer. It’s easier to shove a kid in front of computers for an hour or two a week in school and let them surf than to teach grammar. It’s easier to have them research with Wikipedia and hand in a highly-polished posters full of cute-and-paste quotes, than to teach actual research skills.
Reading and Writing Can Co-Exist with Computers – Really! It’s True!
I’m not saying to get rid of computers. Obviously, that’s ridiculous.
Reading, writing and technology are not mutually exclusive. We simply must acknowledge that technology affects reading and writing in a negative way, and then change the educational system to counteract this negative impact. Educators must accept that technology is seductive and addictive – and dangerous for learning.
The Goal – And It’s Possible
Fill our kids’ days with real reading and writing. Build those skills until they become expert enough to overcome their technology addiction. Eliminate technology from schools. Kids will reject what does not come easily, which means we have to work extremely hard at overcoming their reluctance to learn to read and write at a high level.
But once they learn, they won’t reject books anymore. Once someone tastes prime rib, they won’t like Big Macs so much – and then, we will have a generation of kids who can use computers, have Facebook, game, text, use their mobiles – and have the reading skills to appreciate and enjoy the magical works of Charles Dickens and the multitude of magnificent writers that are waiting to be read.