Where Have All the Readers Gone?

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You would think that my husband and I would be voted most likely to raise readers. Our home is filled with thousands of books. We both read every single night. Steve has books in his car and even takes them with him on appointments. We’re both authors – we WRITE books for gosh sakes.

Even when our boys were little we read books by the bushel full. We went to the library every week and it was a family tradition to get a library card. Our home is not media-centered, either. We don’t have a big screen television, or cable or any favorite television shows that we watch on a weekly basis. The only movies we watch are at the movie theater or on a DVD.

So why, out of seven sons, I can’t name ONE, who would pick up a book that wasn’t for school? Are we turning into a nation of Alliterates - people who can read, but largely don’t? Science fiction author, Ray Bradbury said, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” Since The American Institute for Research reports that only 13 percent of American adults are capable of performing complex literacy tasks, this may be cause for concern for my boy’s future.

What happened? Did my boys develop immunity to the joy of reading?

We both preached the importance of reading to our children. After all, our country’s future depends upon literacy skills. Between 1996 and 2006 the average literacy required for all occupations rose by 14 percent, reported in Reading Next published by the Alliance for Excellent Education (2004). Additionally, the 25 fastest growing professions have far greater literacy demands, while the 25 fastest declining professions have lower than average literacy demands.

Perhaps computers and video gaming are to blame. A 1999 national survey of young people, ages 8 to 18, asked which type of media they wanted to take with them if stranded on a desert island. Of course, number one was a computer with Internet access.

But if the Internet is to blame, it’s also been a blessing. Our twins struggle navigating written text due to their dyslexia. Yet, there is a surprising amount of reading and writing embedded into their online role playing games.

Another plus is the way their games are in all probability enhancing their visual skills. A 2001 study, “The Impact of Computer Use on Children’s and Adolescents’ Development,”  found “Many computer applications, especially computer games, have design features that shift the balance of required information-processing, from verbal to visual. Perhaps their older brother, now a graphic artist, was aided by the visual skills he picked up gaming and surfing the web. Another skill incorporated in playing computer and video games are divided visual attention, the skill of keeping track of a lot of different things at the same time.” 

An extensive 43 country study called “Gender, Context and Reading”  interviewed almost 200,000 kids who were 15 years old using a reading comprehension test which discovered something you may have intuitively known: “In every country, girls outscored boys.” There have been many, many studies that suggest girls perform better at reading than boys. Many of the reading disability diagnoses are also skewed to the male gender. According to the lead researchers on this study, “Are adolescent girls better readers than adolescent boys? Why or why not? In this study, across cultures, girls tended to outscore boys and were more likely to be adequate readers…”

“After controlling for all other variables, girls still outscored boys in reading by 13 points on average, and gender explained about 1 percent of the differences in reading achievement. …Thus, the effects of gender on reading comprehension are not largely attributable to biological influences alone but perhaps also to the valuing of literacy activities to a greater extent among girls than among boys across many societies.”

Perhaps that’s at the root of our problem – we had boys instead of girls. Is there no hope for those of us who are raising boys to raise a reader, too? 

While we still worry about the future of books among the general population, we were given food for thought at a recent birthday for our 31-year-old. We asked our sons if they were reading any books. Our birthday boy astonished us by saying, “Lots of them, I download them to my computer.” He’s avidly exploring ways to ease his chronic fatigue syndrome. So perhaps our worries were unfounded. They may never have vast bookshelves filled with books, but their computers will be stuffed with books.

And what about the other sons? Well, most seem to prefer reading articles to books. The more we thought of this, it makes sense. Why would our graphic artist buy a book on the latest Photoshop techniques if he can find plenty of articles online, with up-to-the-minute information, with illustrations in full color? Typically, people don’t require entire books to satisfy their need for information.

Although we want to instill the skills of reading, in the end we want our boys to have a thirst for wisdom and knowledge. One of ours prefers watching documentaries and listening to NPR. Others consult YouTube for interviews with experts.

While we’re all for pushing reading, since it’s often the best way to get at information, the more we’ve thought about it, our boys are indeed continuing their education, although we may seldom see them cracking a book.

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