The numbers on teens and reading

I’m not one to let numbers rule my thoughts, but this week has been an exception. During my drive to school on Monday, I heard the numbers, “45… and 1, maybe 2” on NPR. Those digits seemed to follow me through the day, looming over each interaction and conversation, particularly with students.

The story restated research on how much teenagers are reading. Only 45 percent of 17 year-olds read one or two books per year. PER YEAR. With Divergent, The Hunger Games, Wither, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower (or any other high-interest Young Adult novel), I cannot seem to fathom that kids either don’t want to read or don’t have the time for it (or perhaps, a combination of the two).

I thought back to my own adolescence and felt nostalgic about what most teenagers today are missing out on: The Land of the Really Great Whangdoodles that celebrated my imagination in fourth grade, The Nicholas Sparks novels that got me through high school break-ups, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance which aided my own exploration of purpose in life after high school. Surely, there were other versions of these classic tales of adventure, romance, and journey that could also entertain and help.

I do not blame technology. In fact, iPads, cell phones, and laptops theoretically make reading more accessible; I blame the overconsumption of technology that leaves little time or desire for anything else.

To exemplify this, take an average day in my period 7 and 8 World Literature class filled with 17 high school juniors. Every electrical outlet in the room is occupied with phone chargers. After only six hours, the cell phones of most of my students are nearly dead. When I ask them how this could possibly be the case since they are in school, after all, they laugh and look to their peers for support. Clearly most teenagers–in my class, at least–are on their phones. All. The. Time.

I often find myself in a debate over whether reading a book is better than seeing the movie. Most students who read the book first and then watch the film, agree with me. Those who have not been turned onto reading yet, though, vehemently disagree. Why waste your time, they argue.

Research is cited and passages of my favorites are read, all in an attempt to change their minds. A novel unit in class is met with displeasure, and for some, loud groans when announced. My favorite article to prove the benefit to reading for pleasure was given to me by a colleague her husband found in The Atlantic. This article from The New York Times also seems to highlight what I am trying to get at with kiddos: Get off the screen and read something worthwhile. You might be pleasantly surprised. (Besides too many online games can’t be good for your eyesight. Just saying.)

I appreciated how the story on NPR highlighted the importance of parents’ influences over teenagers reading habits. Trips to the library. Books in the home. Newspapers and academic magazines available. Television off. I applaud the effort to give the parents more credit–and I suppose more blame–about their teenager’s reading habits. I find this both reassuring and daunting as I think about my own toddler daughter…hoping those numbers–45, 1, and 2–do not apply to her one day.



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