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Why Most Americans don’t Read (Part 3) March 16, 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.)

“Counting sheep is a great way to go to sleep.  Reading slowly comes a close second,” says Dr Stewart.  “But try counting sheep alternately by two’s and three’s and see how long sleep eludes you.  Or try the Fibonacci Sequence mentally and see how it focuses your attention.”  The point here is that slow and careful can often be boring, and if your mind gets bored, it will start thinking about something else.  And this is exactly what happens with reading, especially reading that is too slow, too careful and without purpose.  Concentration is the ability to focus on one thought or idea, to the exclusion of all other thoughts and ideas, and concentration spans and strengths vary from individual to individual.  One fact is however quite certain – if you don’t stimulate your mind, if you don’t give it reason to concentrate on one thought, it will move on to more interesting opportunities.

Asking a NASCAR driver in a 400hp race-car to drive slowly and carefully is a recipe for disaster.  If the driver doesn’t fall asleep first, the car will most certainly choke itself to death.  It’s the same with the human mind – it needs to be active.  100 years ago, life was slower and more sedate than life today.  Now we have a deluge of stimuli – radio, television, the internet, computer games – that are so much faster than the printed word. A 300-page book that takes us days and weeks to read is condensed into a 90-minute movie.  Reading one word at a time, 240 words a minute, simply cannot compete with the electronic barrage of information.  And if concentration is sporadic while reading leisure material at 240 words a minute, it becomes disastrous when we slow down even further to read study material (generally at one third of our leisure reading rate …. because Teacher said it’s important so read it slowly and carefully.) The solution is to read faster. Speed breeds concentration, which is the key to comprehension.  And the more we know, the more we realize how little we know and the more we want to know.  And Want creates Purpose.

The economist John Stuart Mill commented that he could read as fast as he could turn the pages, while writer H. L. Mencken quipped that page-turning was the slowest and most boring part of the entire reading process.  History is sprinkled with similar accomplishments, more recently with stories of Presidents Roosevelt and Kennedy who are reputed to have devoured a book a day while occupying the White House.

Some people will have accidents the first time they drive faster than usual, others will make a career of high-speed driving.  The harsh reality is that we read slowly and inefficiently because we are taught to read this way. We are taught that the slower we read, the more we will comprehend.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  In reality, the slower we read, the faster our minds go to sleep.  And the faster we read, the more we will concentrate and the more we will comprehend.

Similarly, we are taught that comprehension is king.  This is an over-simplification and teachers conveniently exclude the most critical element of comprehension – that while comprehension is important, comprehension is adequate when the reader finds an answer to his purpose in reading.  Thus, if my purpose is to decide whether some material is to be read or discarded, my comprehension is good if I get enough to make that decision – keep it or can it.  Similarly, if I don’t know whether some material is relevant to my needs, I should cover the material quickly and superficially in order to establish relevance and purpose.  Yet how many teachers actually teach our wards to skim and scan, to preview the material first?

This then leads us to three major stumbling blocks to reading development – attitude, purpose and approach.

When talking to a friend’s son, a teenager who appeared to have little direction in life and even less desire to read anything, the question as to whether he was concerned or not about having knowledge pass him by, received a rather interesting and somewhat enlightening (albeit challenging) response – “if I don’t know something, I don’t have to worry about it; if I know what I know, that’s all I have to deal with; why should I care to know about something which does not concern or affect me;  my only responsibility is to attend school, although I don’t know why I need a high school diploma”.

Thinking about his views, my first reaction was irritation – a somewhat typical adult reaction.  But then, thinking about his attitude, is this not exactly what our educational system is all about? Churning out high school graduates who are neither qualified for a career nor for life. Giving people the tools but not the objective. Stressing the importance of good grades but without making sure they want to ‘buy’ into the dream that these tools will unlock. We’re trying to ‘sell’ the product instead of making sure that people really want to ‘buy’ the benefits, and often remaining vague about exactly what benefits are important to our children.

And this should be the primary responsibility that we, as parents and educators, have for the children of today.  The realities of living are inescapable – effort brings reward and the more effort you invest, the greater will be the rewards you can enjoy.  Our responsibility is to help our children to define their life-goals, to visualize these goals, to develop a taste for the fruits of achievement, to develop a passion and hunger for success and achievement, AND THEN TO SHOW THEM HOW THE TOOLS OF EDUCATION, KNOWLEDGE AND WISDOM ARE APPLIED TO THE SATISFYING OF THAT HUNGER, THE GRATIFICATION OF THAT PASSION AND THE ACQUISITION OF THE REWARDS.

The purpose of education is not to issue diploma’s and degrees.  But rather to prepare our children firstly for life and then for a career. To teach them to think.  To look at life and the opportunities that life has to offer.  To consider, evaluate, make choices – the power of observation and reasoning. And then to provide them basic and essential life-skills.

Whether we like it or not, the time of coercion is passed. Coercion only works if you are willing to take coercion to the ultimate degree.  A conscripted military is no match for a volunteer army.  And using the Big Tests as a weapon of threat simply does not work. Children today are a lot smarter than those of yesteryear and they live far more complicated lives.  They witness daily the results of our mistakes and many of them develop a fear of not being able to cope – an emotional shut-down – ‘I can’t handle this, so I won’t think about it,’ and before we know it, our children stop looking outward and start becoming overly introspective, concerned only with definable realities – the next test, the next EOG, the next hurdle.

Children today are incredibly gregarious and inquisitive, if it suits them.  They love vacation-time (when they can do their own thing), they love travel (seeing something new) and they love interaction with their own kind.  Are books anything less than an opportunity to take your mind to places you can’t afford to visit, to meet people you’ll never physically meet, to learn about things that are not part of the school curriculum, to hear views and opinions other than those of your own neighborhood, to experience the unusual, to experience life, vicariously, through the eyes of another?  Does every invention not begin with a dream and are today’s dreams not tomorrow’s reality?

Have we not lost the passion for mental exploration?  Have we forgotten that the human mind is the great explorer, the great traveler and the greatest movie-maker of all time?   Have we consigned books to the role of poor cousin against radio, television and the internet, a chore that has to be done when we have no other choice, an unpleasant duty which mom and dad bring home at night because there was insufficient time at the office?

If we do little else for our children, let us help them to dream of greatness and to pursue  books and learning and education with the same passion and enthusiasm as they do the first day of a vacation.    [1400 words]

(To calculate your reading speed in words per minute, divide 1400 by the number of minutes it took you to read this article.  An average reader will take 4 to 8 minutes for the article.  To keep abreast of new information, you should be able to read this article in 2 minutes or less.

Why Most Americans don’t Read (Part 2) March 15, 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.)

“Adults and students today read with the skills of an 8 year old, and this skill has not advanced in over 100 years.”  Harsh but true -  think about your own reading skills.  Have you learned anything about the actual skill of reading since the 3rd grade?  And do you read any differently from the way your parents and grand-parents read?

The teaching of reading skills, worldwide, hasn’t changed in 100 years or more.  We are taught to read one word at a time, we are taught to read with our finger on the page and we are taught to read out aloud.  Then in the 3rd and 4th grade, we’re told to stop reading with our finger on the page and we’re told to stop reading out aloud and to read “quietly to ourselves”.  We have just given birth to the three bad habits of reading.

Firstly, we regress. Because we stopped using our finger to control the direction and movement of our eyes along the line of print, our eyes tend to wander. We find ourselves re-reading words and phrases, we jump forward, down the page and then have to go back up the page.  This disrupts concentration, confuses understanding and promotes distractions and mind-wandering and so we regress even more in a futile attempt to concentrate and comprehend. And if you thought this was not too serious, consider the fact that the average reader regresses 60 to 70 times each page – regression does nothing other than reduce concentration and comprehension.

Secondly, we never move beyond word-by-word reading.  Our reading becomes a series of single word fixations with the average fixation (focus) duration being approximately one fourth of a second.  This plodding through the material at four words per second restricts our reading to a paltry 240 words a minute.  Add to this the impact of regression and we find ourselves reading even more slowly. Most people, adults and students alike, read at less than 200 words a minute, with fewer than 1 person in a quarter million having a natural reading speed in excess of 500 words a minute.

Finally, we vocalize or sub-vocalize the words we are reading.  Some of us actually say the words, using our vocal chords or ‘mouthing’ the words.  Others will imagine the sound of words inside their heads – all the result of those fatal words told to us in the 3rd grade – “You’re a big person now, so close your mouth, stop reading out aloud, read quietly to yourself” – and so we read quietly to ourselves and we say the words quietly to ourselves in order to reassure us that we are in fact reading to ourselves.  This vocalization and sub-vocalization becomes the conscious reassurance that we are in fact reading to ourselves.  However, all we have done is to reassure ourselves that we have read the words, one by one.  The question whether we’ve actually understood the concepts, ideas and inferences contained in those words, the big picture, remains.  And so we tend to regress in order to attempt understanding of the concepts, rather than the individual words themselves. The result is a downward spiral of confusion, lack of understanding, frustration and ultimately, boredom.

The working of the human mind is a fascinating subject in itself. Suffice it to say, the mind has two distinct limitations – it never sleeps and it cannot consider two ideas at the same time.  And if it gets bored, it will go and find something more interesting to think about.  The bottom line is that if you don’t enthuse your mind with the information coming from the material being read, it will wander off and start thinking about something else and it will continue this wandering until it finds something interesting – something worth thinking about. And all too soon, the reader suddenly realizes that while you may have been looking at the words, your mind was across the street somewhere, thinking about something else.  Inability to concentrate is neither a natural affliction nor an illness.  It’s a phenomenon which we create for ourselves and if understood, can be remedied.

Reading is a thinking skill. It requires to be purpose-driven and it requires concentration. Reading for the sake of reading soon becomes an exercise in futility.  Few people attend seminars just for the sake of attending a seminar and yet all too often we read something for no better reason than it’s there. And because we don’t really know why we are reading, our minds don’t concentrate on what we are supposedly looking at.  As a result, there are two essential pillars upon which reading must be based – purpose and concentration.

Defining your purpose in reading is like playing golf.  If you know where the pin is, you know what to do.  You evaluate distance and accuracy and if the pin is 400 yards away, your purpose is for distance rather than accuracy and the driver becomes the appropriate tool.  When the pin is only 150 yards away, your purpose is to achieve less distance and more accuracy and the 7 or 8-iron becomes the tool of choice.  When just off the green, on the fairway or the apron, your purpose is accuracy and loft, rather than distance, and the pitching-wedge becomes the tool of choice.  And finally, the putter is the tool of choice when accuracy supersedes all else.  The problem is, most people read with the equivalent of the putter and this applies especially to students who have been brain-washed with the dictum “if it’s important, read it slowly and carefully.”

Now while “reading important material slowly and carefully” might sound fine in theory, one might be inclined to ask the following questions – “why is the material important?”, “if it’s important, what will I do with it?”, “what does slowly mean?” and “what do we mean by carefully?”.   I will never forget the day that my daughter kindly offered to make some coffee for a guest and I.  She brewed the coffee, laid the tray and headed for the living room, without incident.  However, as she reached the living room, I cautioned her about the danger of hot beverages and instructed her to just walk slowly and carefully.  Needless to say, it was precisely at this time that the injunction for cautiousness and carefulness destroyed her natural rhythm and precipitated disaster.  My own insecurities had disrupted and destroyed my daughter’s self-confidence.  Similarly, teachers telling their students to read something slowly and carefully is no more than a platitude, a sound-bite without logic, purpose or any realistic expectation of worthwhile result.

If we understand what our children want out of life, help them to define goals, visualize theses goals, imagine tasting the fruits of these goals, aspire to these goals and we enlighten them in understanding that education is only a key to unlocking the door to these rewards, then we won’t have to tell them to read slowly and carefully.  Hunger makes a great sauce and passion is a great motivator, and I have never had to instruct my 10 year old to master his computer games by reading the instructions slowly and carefully.  All too often, we, as parents and teachers, see education as an end rather than a means to an end.  We set out to teach our children to do something and we praise them because they can do it, according to our standards and pre-conceived perceptions.  Yet how often do we consider whether our students know why they are learning or what to do with this knowledge?    [1260 words]

(To calculate your reading speed in words per minute, divide 1260 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.

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.)

Reading Pressures at Schools March 4, 2002

As another school year opens, students at schools are again faced with the ‘Too much to read, too little time’ phenomenon. With new tests mandated by the 2002 No Child law and the long-term implications of SAT and ACT test scores, parents, teachers and students are searching for solutions to improve inadequate reading skills. “The bottom line is that declining reading skills, especially among the young, call for serious action,” according to Dr Bruce W Stewart, international reading skills coach for more than 28 years.

“The No Child law is having repercussions which were surely not envisaged by the legislators” says Stewart. “Test results are used to judge schools’ progress and, in some schools, influence teacher and administrator pay. As a result, there has been a spate of cheating by teachers -- Business Week (July 5, 2004) reports that some teachers are changing answers or filling in unanswered questions, coaching students during the No Child tests, handing out tests in advance and excluding weaker students’ scores from school returns.

“The school problem is just the tip of the ice-berg. Children today invariably reflect the attitudes of their parents, and will in turn influence the attitudes and priorities of their children. According to a survey of literary reading in America, the percentage of adult Americans reading literature has dropped over the past 20 years, from 56.9% in 1982 to 46.7% in 2002. It’s essentially cause-and-effect - because parents don’t read, there is no reading culture within the home, so children don’t read.”

“As more Americans lose this capability (to read literature), our nation becomes less informed, (less) active and (less) independent-minded. These are not qualities that a free, innovative or productive society can afford to lose.” – Dana Gioia, Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts.

“The decline in reading as a leisure activity occurred simultaneously with the emergence of television, computers and the diversity of electronic ‘gizmos’ as alternative entertainment forms” says Stewart. “For most people, reading requires too much effort and takes too much time. The problem is that the teaching of reading skills has remained the same for the past 100 years! While reading skills may be in crisis, the teaching of reading skills still appears to be on the back-burner. You simply cannot ask a teenager, accustomed to high-speed electronic input, to find any sort of reward or enjoyment in reading one word at a time. The result is boredom, lack of comprehension and ultimately an association between reading and failure.”

The percentage of young-adult American readers (age 18-24) has declined from the group most likely to read literature to the group least likely - from 59.8% in 1982 to 42.8% in 2002.

“The solution” says Stewart “is to elevate reading to a mental activity that is as stimulatory and rewarding as television, movies or computer-games. The ability to read the novel in LESS time than it takes to watch the movie. To read the course notes in LESS time than it takes listening to the teacher read the notes in class. Accelerated reading has been around for years - the economist John Stuart Mill could read as fast as he could turn the pages. Henry Louis Mencken commented that page-turning was the slowest part of his reading. And Presidents Roosevelt and Kennedy reputedly read a book a day while in the White House.

“In the ExecuRead for Students course, a 10-hour classroom-based program, student reading speeds are being increased an average 5 times, with some astounding academic results” -- “After increasing my reading speed, I won the British Literature Award for achieving the highest grade in my school class” says Jennifer Quan, a high school student in CA. And Dane Grismer, a high school student in NC was ranked #1 in his Senior High School Class & received over $71k in academic scholarships. The course is taught at a number of schools and colleges, including Darden Business School, Kenan-Flagler Business School, UNC Honors Program and South Western High School, including a number of private student-groups arranged by parents and teachers.

“The Principal of a High School in Illinois, faced the challenge, of declining reading skills, head-on. We ran the teaching staff through an intensive 10-hour ExecuRead for Teachers course. Then we gave every student in the school, from Freshmen to Seniors, 2 hours of intensive coaching in reading, comprehension, retention and recall skills development. With some slight adjustments to the daily school time-table, we introduced a 15-minute period of reading and concentration exercises, facilitated by the teachers, for the students. The impact on overall EOG and ACT test scores has yet to be formally released, but initial reports are encouraging” -- “Increased my son’s ACT score by 25% & won him a scholarship” says Lynn Chism, a parent in Illinois. “A marked improvement in study skills, recall & reading habits” says Shannon Bowman, an English Teacher in IL. And at a cost of about $15 per student, the EduRead Schools program could be an affordable option.”

For further information, contact Dr Bruce Stewart, Toll-free 1 888 4 ExecuRead   (1 888 439 3287) or 917 826 9547.

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