The unsurprising decline of childhood literacy in America
I cannot remember a time when I read a newspaper article informing me that children were getting better at anything. If all the hellish stories are to be believed, young people, not only in this country but throughout the post-industrialized Western world, are miserable: anxious, frightened, isolated, confused. So it was no surprise to learn that American children are not learning how to read either.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, average reading test scores are declining among American eighth graders, in large part because the very worst readers are performing worse than ever. What can we do about it? Elizabeth Warren and other Democrats running for president have a predictable answer: spend billions of dollars on some initiative, the details of which I would rather undergo the voluntary removal of my gallbladder than familiarize myself with. Meanwhile Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education, says that we cannot simply throw money at the problem.
This seems to me undeniable. It may well be the case that not all American children learned to read decades ago, but those who did were actual readers. They could sit down with Washington's "Farewell Address" or a story by Hawthorne without their eyes glazing over. And they acquired these skills with far less money spent, no nonsense about innovative curriculum, or, perhaps most important, without "technology in the classroom" (the great mantra of the '90s and early 2000s). As I write this, millions of them in their 60s and 70s are browsing the stacks at their public libraries, those bizarre institutions that so few young people even associate with books, looking for the new John Grisham.
I cannot for the life of me understand why we cannot admit that spending hundreds of hours in front of televisions and mobile phones and tablets and even occasionally computers — those archaic typing machines employed by us oldsters — is very obviously detrimental to the process of learning to read. Reading a book requires one to concentrate on a single task for an extended period of time — a minimum of half an hour or so during which one does not ask oneself whether a little heart or a yellow star is appearing next to some words in a box next to some other words. It is a centripetal rather than a centrifugal process, one that requires us to look down and inward, not outside. If we want to help young people become better readers, one of the best things we can do for them is to keep their wonderful young imaginations free from the tyranny of the screen, to which commerce will subject them later on when they are forced to earn their livings.
But technology alone is not the culprit. I suspect now that even children whose parents have the good sense to keep them away from iPhones are not any more likely than their peers to become lifelong enthusiastic readers of books. Perhaps even more dangerous than these technological distractions is our official attitude toward reading, one that reduces it to a dull, mechanical process of extracting information from texts and refining this material into multiple-choice answers (which, as all good test takers know, we are supposed to consider before we even set eyes on the material itself). This is, in fact, what we are actually talking about when we say that students are not learning to read. That statement is true, but it would likely be true even if test scores were improving across the country. We need to stop teaching "reading" and start teaching "readers."
I myself was lucky enough to read reasonably well from a young age, but I would not have become a reader if I had not had a teacher who cared more about me and my classmates as human beings than she did about test scores. Without her willingness to have conversations with me about The Hobbit and The Three Musketeers and Huckleberry Finn, I do not think it would have occurred to me that books were things you could enjoy the same way you did watching football or playing video games — and that they were more than that, too, things with odd formal qualities, descriptions and snippets of dialogue that could puzzle and charm and frighten and move us in ways that are almost impossible to describe.
The problem goes beyond standardized testing. If you are an American between the ages of roughly 14 and 50, you were not taught to read because the act of reading is fundamentally ennobling, because the English language is the richest, most varied and beautiful in the world. You were taught themes, like the badness of racism (To Kill a Mockingbird) and totalitarianism (all of those boring "dystopian" novels we foist on high-school students) or the emptiness of rich people's lives (The Great Gatsby), in the most ham-fisted manner. Even lyric poems were sing-song allegories ("The Road Not Taken") that could easily have been Hallmark products. If these one-sentence tidbits are the only things we are supposed to get out of reading hundreds of pages, why even bother? The notion that books can be anything except repositories of clichés (albeit more or less wholesome ones) is never even considered. By the time we leave high school, for most of us reading will possess all the intrinsic interest of medical paperwork or figuring out how to turn on the dishwasher. This, I suspect, is one of the reasons that fewer parents than ever read to their own children past the age of five.
This is also why I do not put much stock in the efforts of our educational class to improve childhood literacy. All of their proposed solutions — especially the default ones of incorporating more screens and insisting upon more frequent and more rigorous testing — will only make the problem worse.
But there is a real answer here. It is some consolation, I hope, to realize that it is the simplest one imaginable: Read to children with joy until they learn to read with joy themselves, and they will do so for the rest of their lives.
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