The trouble with kids of today is they just don’t read any more

If there’s one thing guaranteed to get the minnies a-moaning and the tutters a-tutting it is the publication of the results of educational standards surveys. Scoring high in this are literacy surveys, with PISA, Scholastic and SSLN (Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy) being the main culprits. And when the newspapers print sensationalised headlines such as “Wee Johnnie is crap at reading compared to Wee Juan and Wee Hervé” then the howling reaches a crescendo and the inevitable “Ah well it’s because they don’t read any more” accusation is trotted out. Now before I go any further may I just emphasise that I most certainly do believe that regular reading brings many advantages, not the least of which are a expanded vocabulary and a better understanding of the structures of written English. What I don’t buy into at all is that our young generations read any the less than their counterparts in the past. I would also add that if there is a deficit in reading among the current youth, then perhaps it is as much our fault as it is theirs.

There are four main reasons why I would strongly dispute the claim made in the title of this article. The first is the inclusion of the words “any more”. What this implies is that in the past, the nation’s youth shunned the opportunity to go out and take part in whatever the form of enjoyment of the time was in favour of sitting in with an improving book. Nonsense. The simple fact is that the statistics produced by the reports, in particular Scholastic, only show what kids of today are doing, and any comparative data relates only to a very short timespan. The statement “kids of today don’t read any more” carries a heavy insinuation that kids in previous generations did. Yet in the absence of like data from past generations, how can we even begin to make that claim? We can’t, so to a great extent the statistics are misleading – almost to the point of irrelevance as a comparator. What we are left with is anecdotal evidence and when I ask people of my own age what they read outwith school when they were young children and later when they were in their early teens, the responses show me that there is little difference between the generations. Among my own circle of acquaintances (representative, incidentally, of those who were 5-18 across a sizeable span of the 50s, the 60s, the 70s, the 80s and the 90s) the percentages of those who read for leisure are more or less the same as those produced in reference to today. The thought that everyone in past generations of kids and teenagers spent their leisure time reading is little more than a fallacy. Some did and some didn’t. As in all generations.

But at the heart of this is a more basic issue – that of what the statistics actually mean when they refer to “reading’. And this leads to my second objection to the “kids of today …” claim: surveys such as Scholastic are most often referring to the reading of prose fiction. Banished from any sort of consideration is prose non-fiction or anything even educational or technical. To return to the previous generations debate, my husband will openly admit to having not read the “classics” of fiction. He would therefore be considered one of those “terrible kids who don’t read”. What isn’t taken into account is his early love for technical publications and anything engineery which he devoured at age 13 onwards with a fervour that we would applaud in a reader of Austen and Dickens. If they awarded PhDs for academic research using Haynes car manuals, Himindoors would have had his doctorate by age 15. Yet it seems that the pride we should have had in these alternative reading materials is far overtaken by a prejudice against those same publications.

Another acquaintance of mine of the same vintage had a childhood love of “How it Works” magazines, and the more technical the better. That both became successful engineers (one of them a pioneer in the development of computers) is hardly surprising and since neither had any inclination to head to university to “read” English, why should we sneer at their reading choices which seem so eminently suited to their future lives? Both, incidentally, are the possessors of university degrees gained in later life, so clearly the lack of familiarity with The Mayor of Casterbridge did not dent their academic abilities whatsoever.

Perhaps this is getting closer to the nub of things: we are quite frankly so damn snobbish about limiting our definition of “good reading” to fiction that we have overlooked the importance of other types of written material. And Ironically, even within the ivory towers of English literature academia, certain genres are considered more worthy than others. Woe betide my Advanced Higher student who wanted to do his dissertation on Scottish crime fiction only to be met with a fusillade of tutting from his school and the suggestion that this was not “proper” literature. This deliberate overlooking of anything that isn’t from a very narrow list of classic literature, I would suggest, is to the detriment of our kids. More on that later but in the interim, enter PISA and SSLN stage left.

Ongoing literacy standard reviews are the main contributor to the “kids today not only don’t but can’t read” piffle, with PISA and Scotland’s own SSLN (Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy) being the front runners. The 2016 results of the latter (it is administered every two years) indicate that less than half of Scotland’s 13 and 14-year-olds are now performing well in writing and the reading ability of P4, P7 and S2 pupils (the groups who are tested) is lower than 2012.

Note please that these standards refer to Literacy and not Reading per se, and this is where the third of my objections comes in. The results are bandied about as “evidence” of our kids’ failures with little or no regard to how those results are achieved and even less regard for what they are actually measuring. As it happens, to generate the SSLN results for Reading, the bank of tests carried out by the pupils is on comprehension of prose non-fiction. It is not about how much (or how little) fiction they read. In other words they are tested on their skills in Close Reading, or Reading for Understanding, Analysis and Evaluation as it is in the new money – an activity that brings its own set of skills to the extent that it is considered worthy of being examined in later school. The simple fact is that that many schools’ approach to English teaching is heavily focused on Literature – not in itself a bad thing to learn but surely not to the detriment in close reading skills. How on earth, then, can we expect our 2nd Year pupils to do well in the SSLN tests when they do not have the requisite skills to answer? This to me is a fundamental flaw.

Let me pick up the previous thread about overlooking the importance of other types of written material. If the argument is that reading bestows significant advantages with vocabulary and structural understanding, then surely it does not matter what type of reading material is being used – as long as it has a decent standard of writing itself? If kids want to read car manuals or football fanzines then so what? The standard of writing in FourFourTwo is as beneficial to kids as the works of Jane Austen – more so many would argue. We also have to face the very simple fact that we live in a highly technological age and the written word is coming at our kids not in the form of a hardcover book, but on screen. With such a wealth of information available online – information that will more than cover their school study requirements – why should we still insist on printed material as the only valid method? I personally would like to see schools and colleges teach how to do proper internet searches as part of their curriculum, with a focus on how to determine credibility, currency and relevance of information. Let’s face it, it would be a far more worthy skill to have than the ability to read and regurgitate the relevant chapters of your school’s one and only text book on Subject X. The format for the written word has changed – we have to get with the times.

And don’t get me started on that whole “they don’t read because they are too busy on their iPads and phones” baloney. We are very quick, as adults, to discount these media without actually establishing exactly what the kids are viewing. Let’s be honest, did we not play video games? Did we not sneak in extra sessions after our parents had chided us? And let’s be even more honest – do the video games of today not have a substantial educational content that was missing in the original Space Invaders of my childhood? If you try to tell me that Farmville or Sim City teach nothing about economics or Assassins’ Creed teaches us nothing about problem solving, then I will simply assume you haven’t actually tried them. Add to this that the kid actively engaged in a conversation with their mates on whatever social platform, is a kid who is communicating through reading and writing. Perhaps instead of dismissing this, we should use it to our advantage. To assume that all new technology is unworthy and somehow inferior to reading a novel from a narrow list of approved titles and genres is to ignore a whole new world of potential educational and life skills tools. A vast number of modern computer games are following on from the Dungeons and Dragons of my early adulthood by teaching us how to problem solve by using our brains to interpret the options and instructions that we need to read first. And which most kids of today do really pretty damn well.

That brings me to what I see as the real question – the one that affects us as educators – and it is quite simply this: is it in fact our fault that so many kids profess not to like reading for pleasure? And is it our fault that kids don’t have the skills to interpret non-fiction works? Is it, as I have now come to believe, that WE are the ones who are killing off reading in its traditional form. The Scholastic survey shows that children prefer books that they can see some relevance in – something that can at least equate to what is happening in their own lives and at best can perhaps help them make sense of the world they are experiencing. I should imagine that with very few exceptions, a teacher’s set of experiences is going to be fairly removed from their pupils’. Boring them with a work of literature just because we thought it was good all those years ago is not a good plan. That is not to say we discount the classics altogether. Of course we should be trying to show our young charges that there WAS a big world of literature before Jacqueline Wilson. But if Tracy Beaker allows even so much as one kid see a way out of his or her own current situation, then bring it on. Only after we have dealt with the life experiences of the modern teenager should we be even be beginning to attempt to show them how it was for Elizabeth Bennett, who didn’t have to face bullying on a daily basis; who didn’t need to worry about her social media profile and who, moreover, didn’t need to worry about not getting a job or where the nearest food bank is.

Consider also how English is taught in the average school where everyone in the class does the same text. For many schools, the choice of text is determined either by what the teacher likes combined with being restricted to what is in the English department cupboard rather than what might actually interest the children. Years of cutbacks have meant that for many schools, choice is determined by whether or not there are sufficient books to go round and that they will last another year without disintegrating.

So perhaps before we moan our faces off about kids not reading any more, perhaps we need to examine our own role. As educators we need to cover all the bases. Kids need to learn a whole new range of skills to keep up with modern times if they are to stand any chance of keeping up in future times. While reading for fun is to be applauded, we have to recognise that it is but one past-time that kids will do – when they have time after all the homework we expect them to do so they can pass those exams that seem to be the only focus of their lives. If your kid doesn’t like playing the piano or isn’t any good at it, you wouldn’t try to force them to keep doing it would you? Of course there is a place for reading stories to children in primary school and yes it is nice to introduce them to the niceties of English literature in high school. But to succeed in life (and to pass those bloody SSLN tests) they need to focus on functional literacy first and foremost.

Reading fiction is not bad for our kids. Reading fiction at the expense of non-fiction might very well be.

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