As a writer, I can’t tell you how frustrated I’ve been with my children’s lack of interest in reading. Sure, they read books for school assignments—out of necessity—but I want them to learn to read for enjoyment. I want them to see that each book is a new adventure that spirits them away to places they may never visit, meeting interesting new people and taking part in escapades they can only dream of having. The question is: how can I get them to realize the value of reading for enjoyment?
During the course of my Adolescent Literature class, I found several scholarly articles that chronicled the decline of reading by Americans. According to the 2002 census—for example—reading was down 10.2% from the 1982 census. That doesn’t seem to be a major decline, but when you consider that 10.2% equates to 20 million potential readers, it becomes clear that we are facing a disastrous decline in reading.
It’s not improving.
A 2007 Research Report from the National Endowment for the Arts titled “To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence,” establishes three disturbing facts:
1. Americans are spending less time reading.
2. Reading comprehension skills are eroding.
3. These declines have serious civic, social, cultural, and economic implications.
If you continue reading this troubling document, you will find that their research has concluded that less than 1/3 of 13 year-olds read daily and the amount of 17 year-olds who say they do not read for enjoyment has doubled over the last 20 years! If you do not find this trend troubling, you obviously do not comprehend the far-reaching consequences.
Still don’t get it?
Imagine, if you will, a dystopian future 2,000 years from now. During this second Dark Age, there are a group of men who are “keepers of the law.” The reason these few men rule over society is because they are the few who can read the Constitution. What if these men are dishonest? What if they lie to the people about the contents of the ancient document? Could they not warp our democracy into a theocracy, monarchy or dictatorship? And what recourse would the people have? How would they know these men were lying to them if they couldn’t read the Constitution for themselves?
“That’s not possible, dude.”
Are you serious? Are you familiar with the Dark Ages and the Crusades? Do a bit of research and discover how illiteracy caused a decline in the arts and the devolution of society in the Dark Ages. Oh, and you may find it difficult to conduct research because of the lack of Latin texts and contemporary written history. And it’s not a stretch to say the Crusades were orchestrated by corrupt popes who “interpreted” the Latin-text Scriptures to the largely illiterate masses. It’s obvious Pope Urban II and his successors twisted the Scriptures to manipulate the people.
In light of these facts, I don’t think my scenario is overdramatic or impossible. After all, history has a funny way of repeating itself whether we think it’s possible or not.
“What’s your point?”
I’ve been asked if I think science has had a positive or negative impact on society. I would say both, but I wonder if the negative outweighs the positive. In some ways, I feel that modern advents have led to the massive decline in reading.
Allow me to explain.
I have three children, three nieces and two nephews. As a father and uncle, I’ve been able to observe most of their daily routines. Here is what their activities entail:
1. Playing videogames. My children—all male—and my nephew spend most of their waking hours playing videogames. In the case of my children, I removed the videogame and incorporated a “Read for Videogames” program. For every book they read, they get 1 hour of videogame time.
2. Watching television. In this age of Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Toon Disney—and many other child-centric television networks, children are watching the most television since the “devil box” moved into American homes in the 1950s.
3. The internet. My sons love using the computer, but before I imposed an “educational sites only” mandate, they spent all their time playing online games.
4. Sending text messages/using cell phones. My nieces and nephew have cell phones and they are constantly “texting” their friends or talking on the phone. Not to say that these are unacceptable activities in moderation, but I’ve even seen adults who take this to disturbing extremes.
One thing I have not observed my nieces and nephews doing is reading. Not once.
For these reasons, I have to say that technology has adversely affected particularly children and young adults. When I was a child, I didn’t have these miracles of science and what was I doing? I was reading, writing, drawing, and playing outside. Activities that not only stimulated my imagination and creativity, but also activities that promoted better physical health. I’d love to see the correlation between scientific advances and obesity, but I digress.
So here’s what I’m doing about it:
1. A Read for Videogames program. For every book my children read, they get one hour of videogame time. By “book,” I mean graphic novel or chapter book. My 8 year-old son (who has severe ADHD) prefers graphic novels, while my other two children prefer chapter books. When not in use, the game system controllers are in the closet. If they are not redeeming the time they earned by reading a book, my children are not allowed to use the game systems. Out of sight, but never out of mind, my children have been reading maniacs since I instituted this program. We’ll see how it goes.
2. Lead by example. If I am not writing, I am reading. In the evenings, I spend time playing time with my children. When they are watching their favorite television shows, I am sitting on the couch snuggling my 8 year-old and reading a book. My children see me reading on a daily basis. And I share the stories with them. I get excited talking about the newest book I’m reading. They know dad loves to read because they see him doing it every day.
3. Limiting television time. The television is not my children’s babysitter. Though I do spend a lot of time writing, I also spend a lot of time outside with the kids. If I am not playing with them outside, I am sitting in my collapsible chair, drinking coffee, reading a good book. Outside time is a wonderful alternative to the television because it promotes good health and a salubrious imagination.
Will it work?
I don’t know, but that won’t prevent me from trying. I can only hope that during the course of reading books to earn videogame time they will discover the joy of reading and make it a daily habit.