Animation by Kayelle Allen at The Author's Secret

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Why Don't Our Children Read Anymore?

The best memory I have of my childhood is curling up on the upstairs landing (which only I knew had the warmest radiator in the house) on those bleak and desultory days of the seemingly endless winter holidays and losing myself for hours on end in fictional realms.  TV was a paltry runner-up to the richness of my life in literature.  I lived it and breathed it right alongside the characters in whose lives and dramas some kindly author had invited me to partake.  The whole household could have collapsed about my ears and I would not have noticed.

I still frequently go AWOL from the real world when I become engrossed in a good story.  I suppose I simply have no self-control, but the pleasure of reading makes me realise how thin so many other modern pleasures are.  Read a good book and something permeates your soul and stays with you forever.  Which, of course, is why I’m so sad that so many of our children today are missing out on that wonderful gift.

By ‘our’ I’m referring to children in a collective or national sense.  You know, that ubiquitous ‘younger generation’ we oldies are all so worried about.  I have certainly been worrying about this increasing problem for the past decade, but not for the more obvious reasons.  My own son is an avid reader – always was, always will be.  When I watch him devour literature and see him reap the rewards of something he does purely for pleasure, I feel sad that so many other young people are missing out on a wonderful experience.

I’m sure that wherever you are in the country, you’ve participated at some point in these ‘Good As New’ sales organised so beautifully by dedicated volunteers raising money for cancer research or similar worthy charities.  These sales are a great way to dispose of good quality clothing, equipment, games and books while helping needy charities.  For one reason or another I had a great collection of (brand new) children’s literature I no longer needed, all written by wonderful, award-winning children’s authors.  I also had a collection of used Simpsons comic books.

I’d be disappointed in you if you didn’t know where I was going here!  What sold?  Yes of course, you guessed.  What was disappointing was that even at giveaway prices – a tiny fraction of their retail value - parents did not see the value of buying high quality literature for their children.  Incidentally, this sale was in one of the more affluent London suburbs and the car park was crammed to capacity by people-carriers carrying very few people.

As a former English teacher I’ve always been deeply concerned about the reading habits of the young.  Correction, what I really mean is ‘lack of reading habits’.   When I first began teaching – and believe it or not, that wasn’t back in the dark ages, reading was still considered to be acceptable, even pleasurable.  Libraries were the hub of the school and book fairs the highlight of the term.  When visiting authors came, the children would be held spellbound; happily spending their pocket money stocking up their bookshelves and writing appreciative fan letters en masse without any prompting. 

I myself ran school book-clubs and from the day they placed their order until the day of delivery, children would stop me in corridors and playground asking me when their book orders would arrive.  When I became head of English, my mission was not just to maintain that enthusiasm but to increase it.  I wanted parents to be more involved as well, in order to capture some of those reluctant readers in the net.  I spent three-quarters of my departmental budget on exciting new books which had all been carefully researched by caring staff and students.

But gradually I saw a decline in interest.  Children no longer wanted to read.  Year after year each new intake proved to be less literate than the last and even less interested in reading.  Book fairs and book clubs dwindled away due to lack of interest and library lessons offered little more than opportunities for collective worship in the non-fiction section for boys or huddled gatherings of girls pretending to pour over an illustrated Shakespeare while they quietly discussed the latest gossip or read each other’s text messages.

The real crunch came a few years ago in the A Level classes, when students professing a desire to study English Literature at university claimed to hate reading.  When asked why they had chosen Literature, the answers varied from:  ‘Well I really enjoyed Pride and Prejudice.  I mean Keira Knightley was okay, but Matthew Macfadyen...’; to ‘I like Shakespeare.  Laurence Fishburne as Othello was really excellent.’

I harangued my students mercilessly every time they asked if there was a DVD of the text we were studying.  (In my defence, I’m not claiming that films have no place in the teaching of literature, just that they should provide the little ornament on the top of the tree, not constitute the whole of Christmas).  Students invariably said they found it so much easier to watch a film than read a book.

But as year upon year this antipathy towards reading – and in particular classical literature – grew and the internet made it (or so the students thought) so much easier to cheat on their essays, teaching literature became more about policing students than teaching them and sharing in their discoveries.  Today more and more children simply cannot be bothered to read.  Teachers don’t just have to worry about plagiarism anymore – there are numerous agencies all over the world employing people willing to write students’ assignments for a paltry sum.  And sadly these are beyond the refined searching tentacles of Google.  The system allows lazy students to avoid even glancing at the great literature they were meant to study.  And the chances are, if they don't do it now, they won't in the future.

Good teachers can inspire children in lessons, certainly, but much depends on students' willingness to go away and read, think and discover for themselves.  Nowadays, sadly, children are less and less inclined to make the time in their fast-paced lives to do just that.  If they can find a shortcut, they will take it.  I didn’t set out to moralise on the rights and wrongs of this (though doubtless my position is fairly clear), I just feel depressed that it is happening and worry about how sadly impoverished future generations will be. 

Maybe the media can compensate?  Personally, I must confess that I doubt it. 

 Posted on Yahoo this week:  
[I am 16 years old and so far i think I've read only 1 book lol. I think i will like books with mystery, science fiction. horror, fantasy, crime genre.I've been reading alot of manga .Its never too late to start .Bad english I hope you understand.]

Need I say more?


Deborah Court said...

This is a wonderful article. I totally agree with everything you write. I think the easiest way to awaken a love for books in your children is to read to them every day, from an early age on. It's so sad that many parents don't even think about reading to their children before bedtime. I have been reading to them (almost) daily since they were babies, and they both like books. You can't expect teachers to do all the work, it's the parents who should motivate the kids to read in the first place. This is really sad!

ManicScribbler said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ManicScribbler said...

Thank you, Deborah. You are absolutely right. Children love hearing stories. Develop good habits early and they will enjoy the riches for the rest of their lives.
Spending time with our children reading and sharing exciting stories is one of the best gifts we can give them when they are young.

A. B. England said...

I've loved stories as long as I can remember, but I also remember absolutely hating reading time and dreading reading assignments for homework. I'd sit there staring at a word. I knew I knew what it was, but I just couldn't pull the memory from storage. I'd get frustrated. Mom would get frustrated; then an hour and a whole bunch of tears later we'd finish a six paragraph passage.

I'm dyslexic and dysgraphic. It took me a good three or four years to learn how to read, and I had to learn how to read upside down and in mirror image to do it. I still have to program words into muscle memory to spell worth anything. But oh, once I no longer had trouble seeing the forest for the trees! I became a regular bookworm, and I still am. Movies can't hold a candle to a good book, and they make bad ones even worse.

Parenting and early intervention with reading problems makes such a big difference. The smaller the child, the more connected they are to their imaginations anymore it seems.

Anyone else notice the older children and teens seeming to loose the ability to imagine these days? Like it's a muscle that atrophies without use.

ManicScribbler said...

Thank you for sharing this very poignant account of your childhood reading difficulites A.B. This has really given me food for thought.

I'm so glad that you persevered and overcame your difficulties and can now enjoy the magic of reading.

Your story is a valuable lesson to us all.

SL Clark said...

Great books transcend generations. This is the one saving grace and guiding light in starting Heart Press. IMO, hardcovers will become treasured art once again. eBooks will be available to all, a vast world reading, one book at a time.

Those that have much do not understand how important a book can be to a child in rural India, China, or Africa. -Steve

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