Saturday, August 19, 2006

Why Johnny Doesn't Read

Interesting commentary in USA Today this week about a decline in reading skills among American students.

As school started for me this week, I made a point of asking each of my high school students about their reading habits, including their favorite and least favorite books. Many of them had a longer list of least favorite books, mostly required reading. Many others, including Advanced Placement students, admitted to not liking to read at all. I was really glad the students were so open with me, and I learned a lot about their literacies. I think I'm now qualified to theorize about what impedes student enthusiasm toward books.

1) Relevancy. Many students cited Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis as something they just couldn't get into. Many said they didn't like certain books because they "didn't see a point." Though the themes in the Metamorphosis speak to universal alientation, it seems to me an ironic fact that this book doesn't speak to people universally: an existential Jewish Czech bohemian living in the early 20th Century on the surface has little in common with the average 21rst Century American high school student. I undestand that it is part of my job as a teacher to help students connect to the relevancy that is there, but I also think it is true that it takes a certain maturity and life experience before a person can appreciate that which doesn't immediately relate to her or him.

2) Language. I found that students are consciously aware that what often separates them from an appreciation of literature is a language barrier. I think young people often have excellent linguistic skills-- they pick up slang with aplomb, after all. I think they need to be reminded that it is unfamiliarity with conventions of say, 19th Century prose, which is the problem, and not unintelligence. If they can learn the conventions of rap vernacular, there is no reason with enough practice they can't do Shakespeare.

3) Lack of instant gratification. This is probably the most common explanation offered by adults, but teenagers are quite aware of the issue themselves. Without saying it in so many words, I found that they know they are of the so-called "MTV Generation," they know they have short attention spans, and a couple students said they have "no imagination" and can't "pictue the story happening." This is a huge problem that expands beyond education--this is a cultural problem.

4) They don't get it. This takes a couple guises. Despite the de-emphasis of semiotics in literature at the college level, poor high school students often come to regard each book as some kind of code they need to break, but they don't think they have the skills to do so. I was surprised that many students spoke about hating Animal Farm, considering how accessible the language is. Yet they apparently had no knowledge of Bolshevik politics, and were apprently completely overwhelmed with the burden of having to understand the allegory. On the other hand, saying they don't "get it" might come back to the simple fact that they might not have very good reading skills, which ties back to the main point of the USA Today column. If students don't have a functional literacy, you can forget about all the rest.


Blogger Enjoy_Every_Sandwich said...

I don't see what relevancy has to do with it. I love sci fi, but alien abductions don't relate to me.
I agree with the language thing, but there are plenty of modern books with modern language, so that shouldn't be much of an impediment.
Just because I feel like it, here are my favourite and least favourite books:
Life Expectancy-Dean Koontz (I highly highly recommend this one. Best book EVER)
One Door Away From Heaven-Dean Koontz
Memoirs of a Geisha-Arthur Golden
Velocity-Dean Koontz (I like Dean Koontz)
A Great and Terrible Beauty-Libba Bray
Prey-Michael Crichton

Some books I hate include:
The Pearl-John Steinbeck (never, EVER again)
The Hollow-Agatha Christie
Freeze Tag-Caroline B. Cooney (remember that one Heidi?)

Reading is one of my favourite things to do, and it shocks me when people say they hate reading. It is the most enjoyable thing you can do, I think.

11:30 PM  
Blogger Enjoy_Every_Sandwich said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

12:00 AM  
Blogger Enjoy_Every_Sandwich said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

12:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

calm down room. take a chiller.

yes, i remember.

12:59 PM  
Blogger Boo said...

Hey Azor:
Thanks so much for this blog, sorry I'm late posting to it but my teaching started back as well. I passed this one on to colleagues because it has so much relevance for those of us trying to teach English and literature to incoming college students. We understand the world that they live in is so high tech that they almost expect their instructors to be a caricature of those flat video characters; there to entertain them, not to grasp any real knowledge from. Reading, like letter writing, has truly become a lost art.

9:05 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home