Sunday, September 23, 2012

To Read, or Not to Read?

The young daughter of a friend of mine told me the other day that she doesn't like to read.  We were chatting as we waited for my friend to finish what she was doing so we could head out to an event and when she said that I felt, well, gutted would be the word.  Her mom is a reader.  Her dad, too, though he mostly reads business books or political memoirs, that kind of thing.  So I told her all I thought she was missing.  I pointed out that some of those movies she loves so much like the Harry Potter series were books first.  I said that books will reveal much more of the world than she could possibly learn by just watching tv or even surfing the Net.  She responded, laughingly, that her mom had already told her all that but she just found reading boring.  Well!!!

I didn't know what more to say so I didn't say anything.  But, later, discussing it with her mom, we conceded the problem was bigger than Rhonda.  In fact, a couple of the high school English teachers I know, say that every year it seems like less and less children are reading at their age-level.  Worse, their ability to express themselves and to comprehend what they read also seems to be in decline.  One of the teachers has started a book club to help overcome this but they think the problem has reached epidemic proportions.  Of course, it's not just BVI children.  Educators on other islands and in the States, for example, have been complaining about this ever since the publication of the sensational Why Johnny Can't Read.  

For years, the Caribbean prided itself on being a highly-literate region with some of the best schools in the world.  The region's roster of writers include V. S. Naipaul, Samuel Selvon, Jamaica Kincaid, George Lamming and Nobel Laureate, Derek Walcott, among others.  But, if fewer children are reading, where will future generations of Caribbean writers come from?

As a parent, I've tried to instill a love of reading in my daughter by getting rid of television, by discussing the stories she's reading with her, by asking her to come up with different endings for stories, and by making sure she has some of the best children's books in her library.  She will pick up a book and read it but she, increasingly, uses her Kindle to surf YouTube.  Can The Wind in the Willows compete with Beyonce, or even Alvin and the Chipmunks?


Graeme K Talboys said...

A sad state of affairs, but I don't think it's new. As a teacher in the '70s, one of the big topics of discussion was the fact that children no longer read books. Television and video were blamed. Yet within a school generation reading was on the increase, partly because a new crop of writers had tapped into the interests of the young. Publishing at the moment seems to be obsessed with finding the latest version of the last success; they're still looking for the new Rowling when they should be after fresh ideas. I know that's not the whole answer, but I suspect modern media will soon become old hat and youngsters will start looking for what they missed - and they will find it in books.

Charles Gramlich said...

I see this problem showing up when I give vocabulary terms to my students and find so few really "grok" them. I try to explain that reading is where you build a strong vocabulary but it doesn't resonate with most of them it seems.

Shauna Roberts said...

This surprises and saddens me. We have the best and broadest array of books for young people in history being published now, yet kids are turning away from books for less interesting and even boring pursuits.

Eugenia O'Neal said...

Shauna, I, myself, am excited by some of the books I see being published now for children and I hope that some of them, somewhere, are reading them.

Charles, I agree completely - reading builds vocabulary and helps you express your ideas in ways that make sense but now, if it's too long a word, it's inconvenient for texting purposes and suddenly we have New Speak. Added to this, the confusion of 'there' and 'their' and 'your' and you're' has reached pandemic proportions.

Graeme,I can only hope you're right but I know so many young professionals who don't read for pleasure that it's kind of scary.

Sometime ago I volunteered to tutor the niece and nephew of a friend of mine - they were doing Shakespeare's Macbeth (arguably the most gripping of his plays) and I was quite chuffed about it. I set them an assignment and then showed up a couple days later to discuss what they'd read with them but, as the discussion went on, something was missing. They seemed to have the general thread of things but were missing the texture. I probed, and probed some more and they finally admitted that they'd only read the Cliff Notes!!! I realized I didn't have the fortitude for the task and gave it up.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Eugenia, as a child growing up in the Caribbean, teachers constantly confiscated books from children reading during class. When I started teaching in the '90, it was video games we confiscated. We were actually told not to confiscate books if they were reading because it was such a rare occurrence.

What I am trying to say is that books have a hard time competing with other media outlets that require less work and imagination. What I've found though, is that a book based on a video game or movie series would likely be read by youngsters. Maybe we're the ones who need to change our approach.

That said, my 9 year old doesn't like reading, but she likes writing. I try to encourage her. While I have to force her to take up a book, she would happily read stuff on her Nintendo DS or online. I guess I have to review my approach bearing in mind that there are much more things vying for kids' attention than when I was growing up.

Carol Mitchell said...

I think that there are a number of things going on. For some kids, I think there is a genuine issue of interest. Just like some children like sports and others don't; some like reading and others regardless of how it is presented to them, don't. To those of us who love it, the idea may be bizarre but so it is. This does not mean reading is any less important for thos children, it is just something we need to understand as we try to encourage children to read.

There is also the group who might like reading if the idea was presented to them a bit differently, parents who read, interesting books, opportunities for feedback when reading, fewer alternative activities and so on. As the number of distractions and alternate activities available at home increase, encouraging reluctant readers becomes more difficult.

The Divorced Lady's Companion to Living in Italy said...

We have the same problem in our house. My youngest cannot be tempted to read with interest, and I have to hide game consols and ration tv. And yet his older brothers read incessantly and like to talk books. One of them even read my thinking lady's romantic comedy at 19! I'm still trying with my youngest but it's uphill all the way.

Dayton Ward said...

Mine are 6 and 4 now, but we started with ours early (like while they were still in the womb!). Books were always among the first toys our girls had to play with. We started with the big, thick pages easily handled by awkward little fingers, with pictures and swatches of material to demonstrate different textures and shapes. As they've grown older, we've tried to keep tabs on their access to gadgets and whatnot. They don't have game devices of their own, and only play our console game when it's us playing with them (Guitar Hero, Wii Fit, Wii Sports, etc.).

We still read to them constantly, and now they're old enough where they pick out their own books when we go to the store. They even ask me to take them to the library and the book store. My 6-yr old is in Kindergarten, and is reading on her own. She's also getting exposure to games and learning programs on the computer in her classroom.

I expect that the struggle will only get more difficult as they get older and become more aware of the various things competing for their attention and entertainment, but hopefully we've laid a foundation that includes a love of books.

Liane Spicer said...

I always told my students that no matter what they learned in class, the best thing they could do to improve their language skills was to read. A lot.

I agree with Dayton that the reading habit has to be inculcated from the womb, or at least from the crib. The children won't all grow into voracious readers but at least they'll have a foundation in literacy that'll pay life-long benefits.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Dayton and Liane, I beg to differ on the idea that early exposure will lead to a lifelong love of reading. I was reading to my oldest since she was in the womb. I thought her to read before she entered kindergarten. At 3 she harassed me to get her a library card. At five she started to write stories. She still does at 9.
But at 7 I could not get her to pick up a book. At 8 I had to use incentives. She found interest in Carol Mitchell's books, but they are only 3.

I tried restricting electronic gadgets, especially the Nintendo DS, until I realized she reads on the DS. Maybe I need to forget the paper books and go digital. But then I'm afraid she'll use it for surfing the web.

Liane Spicer said...

Jewel, remember I said that they won't all grow up to be voracious readers - I don't think anything can guarantee that. My son had the early exposure, was reading independently at three, and read throughout his childhood and teenage years. (I refused to have a television in the house when I realized that when he sat in front of it he turned into a zombie.)

Now that he's an adult he rarely reads fiction, and the nonfiction he reads is usually work-related. So, no guarantees.

What I did say is that the early exposure benefits them in ways we can't even quantify. One of the things I found remarkable was that while I was struggling to teach punctuation of direct speech to 4th formers who could not seem to grasp it, my son just 'knew' how to do it perfectly in standard 1. No one taught him that - he absorbed it early, down to the inversion of the speech marks at the start.

He is often surprised when people remark on his facility with language, oral and written. Again, I think the early exposure helped a lot. I'm willing to bet your daughter reads and writes above grade level.

So, she might not be the reader you'd like her to be at 9, but the early exposure would have benefited her tremendously.

Also, reading is reading regardless of the device on which it's done. Maybe she'd like a dedicated e-reader? The gadgets tend to get 'em.

Dayton Ward said...

Not sure what you're disagreeing with, Jewel. As I said:

"I expect that the struggle will only get more difficult as they get older and become more aware of the various things competing for their attention and entertainment, but hopefully we've laid a foundation that includes a love of books."

I'm old enough that I didn't have much in the way of gadgets when I was a kid. The home game market was in its infancy (Atari 2600, anyone?), and there were no DVD players (or VCRs, for that matter) and certainly no home computers of any real worth. Video game arcades came into their own when I was in my early teens. Still, all those bells and whistles, along with the movie theater, definitely grabbed my attention.

But, I never gave up reading. Like then, I don't now view it as an either/or proposition when it comes to books vs. everything else. I like my gadgets as much as any kid, but my preferred method of relaxation is still a good book. As for our kids, it's an ongoing process so far as our efforts at getting them to embrace reading, and while there's a nice balance so far, only time will tell.

KeVin K. said...

Because I spent my teaching career with remedial and 'at risk' students I came to realize that some people simply do not 'get' reading. We read a description of the wind sweeping across a flowering meadow and we see the image. They see the words on the page. No image, no connection. I once had the parent of a student I was working with suddenly have the breakthrough, in his mid-thirties, of 'seeing' what the words meant. It's a skill, a way of using our minds. And if our environment is such that we don't need that skill, we don't develop it.