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Why Most Americans don’t Read (Part 1) March 13, 2002

By Dr Bruce W Stewart, Charlotte-based educator and international information-management consultant
(Use a stopwatch or your wrist-watch to note how much time it takes you to read this article.)

“It’s that which we don’t know that we don’t know, which we should be most concerned about.”  While this might sound contradictory, knowledge never hurt anybody.  It’s ignorance which does the most damage.  Simply put, there are three types of information impacting on our lives and our futures  – 1. that which we know, 2. that which we know we don’t know and 3. that which we don’t know we don’t know (i.e. being ignorant about our ignorance).  Americans in general, and students in particular, are increasingly at risk from this affliction, according to Dr Stewart.

The National Endowment for the Arts’ “Reading at Risk Survey” cautions that literary reading in the USA has declined by 10% over the past 20 years, from 56% of the adult population in 1982 to 46% in 2002, with the greatest decline (17%) in the 18-24 age-group, solid evidence of the declining importance of literature to our populace.  “If one believes that active and engaged readers lead richer intellectual lives than non-readers and that a well-read citizenry is essential to a vibrant democracy, the decline of literary reading calls for serious action” says Dana Gioia, Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts.

The Manhattan Institute’s Education Working Paper “Public High School Graduation & College Readiness Rates in the US”  reports that only 70% of all students in public schools will graduate (63% in N.C.), and only 32% of all students leaving high school are qualified to attend four-year colleges. The primary reasons for students failing to meet college admission requirements are 1. failure to graduate from high school, 2. inadequate student transcripts, and 3. inadequate reading skills.

Charles Sykes in his book “Dumbing down our kids : Why America’s Children feel good about themselves but can’t Read, Write or Add”, comments that “when the very best American students – the top one percent – are measured against the best students of other countries, America’s best and brightest finished at the bottom.”

In a recent academic comparison study by the Program for International Student Assessment, of students in 32 developed countries, 14 countries score higher than the U.S. in reading, 13 have better results in science, and 17 score better in mathematics.

The Princeton Testing Service shows that American students rank highest amongst industrialized democracies for amount of time spent watching videos in class.  A 1999 study showed that the average American child lives in a household with 2.9 televisions, 1.8 VCRs, 3.1 radios, 2.1 CD players, 1.4 video game players and 1 computer.

“This should be a matter of concern to both parents and their student children,” says Dr Stewart, a parent of 2 children in CMS public schools in south Charlotte.  “At the risk of plunging into very hostile waters, I offer the following as contributory causes to the current predicament :

Families have lost reading culture – parents no longer read as a leisure activity.  Parents read because their jobs demand reading.  Reading is thus perceived by children as a chore and children are invariably never exposed to the joys of leisure reading.

Reading skills are becoming extinct, for the very same reasons that the dinosaur became extinct – failure to adapt.   We live in an electronic age and an age of instant gratification.  Our children are being bombarded with electronic information at a prolific rate and this information is both visual and aural, invariably requiring little active mental participation.  It’s fast and it’s immediate. And then we ask children to read the printed word.  From the outset, they associate reading with an unpleasant chore, something which requires mental effort, and something which takes time.  Teachers tell them to read slowly and carefully.  They experience boredom, frustrations, distractions – the gap between intellectual ability and reading ability widens and the frustrations associated with reading increase.

Reading education attempts to use testing to measure progress, but does little to instigate the progress it intends to measure.  It attempts to secure higher returns with less investment and vacillates between various literacy-teaching methodologies aimed at short-term results rather than long-term attitudes and behavioral patterns.

Very rarely, in my 30 years of teaching, do I find teenagers who have a passion for reading.  As educators, we know the importance of reading, but we are trying to sell a product that nobody wants to buy.  I believe that the time has come where we need to adapt our teaching of reading skills and our approach to the teaching of reading skills, to more suitably meet the demands and idiosyncrasies of our target audience.

In the marketing industry, if an advertisement does not capture the audience’s attention within a few seconds, the advertisement dies.  Similarly with reading – if the reader’s interest is not piqued within a few seconds, the book is consigned to the “cemetery of the unread”.

If reading is going to compete with electronic wizardry, then we need to re-design our teaching methodology.  To take the teaching of reading skills beyond the present 4th or 5th Grade.  To teach advanced reading skills where 750 to 1000 words a minute is perceived as normal, as opposed to the present 150 to 250 words a minute. Where reading is as stimulating as television and computer games.

This requires a change in attitude, both at the family level and at schools – a re-establishment of reading culture, a re-affirmation of reading as a leisure activity, as a pursuit of personal enrichment and as a key to personal self-development.  If reading is FUN, REWARDING and STIMULATING, people will READ.

Borrowing a leaf from Six Sigma’s problem-solving model, we need to define the problem – if reading bores our children, make reading more stimulating. If reading takes too long, make reading faster.  If students cannot see the purpose in reading, show them the way.  If people profess a sort of macabre pride in their poor reading skills, in their ignorance and in the attitude that ‘if I don’t know what I don’t know, why should I care?’, then focus the spotlight on the rewards and riches that derive from being knowledgeable and riding the crest of the information wave.

Over the next few articles, I will be discussing both the causes of inadequate reading skills as well as possible solutions to the problem.  Students, parents and teachers are encouraged and welcome to contact me with their comments, concerns and view-points.    [1070 words]

(To calculate your reading speed in words per minute, divide 1070 by the number of minutes it took you to read this article.  An average reader will take 4 to 6 minutes for the article.  To keep abreast of new information, you should be able to read this article in 2 minutes or less.)