Fewer and fewer children are reading for fun. They are missing more than just great stories

 Fewer and fewer children are reading for fun.  They are missing more than just great stories

It was Harry Potter, or actually his friend Hermione Granger, who got my 6-year-old granddaughter excited about learning to read.

She was reasonably interested in reading before then, though distance learning for most of her kindergarten year means she and all the other first graders at her small charter school on California’s central coast don’t are at pre-pandemic literacy levels for their age. Then when my daughter started reading JK Rowling books to her, my granddaughter discovered the witch girl and now she is obsessed with the books.

Hermione frequents the Hogwarts library and, just for the hell of it, soaks up the information in its books. More often than not, that information saves the day for her and her friends. My granddaughter wants to be a heroic brainiac like Hermione. She knows that means breaking the codes of the reading.

Of course, she was probably destined to become a book lover. Her parents both have doctorates in English literature. My daughter, perhaps she got a lot of her love from reading me. I inherited it from my father, who dropped out of high school to support his parents and siblings during the Great Depression, yet he made weekly trips to the library throughout his life to borrow loads of books that he devoured Family background aside, almost any student can love reading and start their own family tradition.

As a mother of three children in public schools, it always bothered me that the elementary school had a voluntary “book club” in which students received prizes based on how much reading for pleasure they did each week. The message seems wrong: We have to bribe them to read for fun.

All of this comes into play now that a survey by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the organization that periodically compiles the Nation’s Report Card based on student tests, has found that the number of 9- and 13-year-olds who read regularly for pleasure has dropped.

Elementary school children are more likely to read than their older counterparts, according to the survey. But even so, the number of 9-year-olds who say they read for pleasure nearly every day fell from just over half in 1984, to 42% during the 2019-20 school year. The trend among high school students is worse. The proportion who read frequently for fun more than halved to 17%, while the proportion who rarely or never read more than tripled.

(High school students weren’t surveyed because the pandemic hit before NAEP got around to surveying them, but their reading habits followed the same pattern as middle school students in previous years.)

This is worrying for many reasons. Children who read for pleasure every day do the best on reading tests, according to the American Library Association. The bond is especially strong when children talk to one another about the books they are reading.

A British study found that reading for pleasure had much broader benefits, including improved vocabulary, spelling and math skills. And reading for pleasure was more important to those successes than the students’ socioeconomic background. According to the nonprofit reading advocacy group Kids Read Now, readers also gain greater empathy, decision-making and social skills.

One of the factors contributing to this discouraging trend seems obvious: Social media and other digital activities are time consuming, according to the American Psychological Association.

But some librarians and students point to other reasons as well: As students progress through school, the required reading of textbooks and assigned literature in class increases. They may read more, but they often enjoy it less. Add to that the time required by an increasingly busy menu of structured activities (at least before the pandemic), such as jobs, sports, or other after-school activities. Homework loads are also heavier in high school than in lower grades, often exceeding the recommended maximum of two hours a day. It’s easy to understand why reading a magazine or other book doesn’t seem like a good way to relax.

So if kids are reading social media posts, isn’t that a modern way to read for pleasure? And if they’re into textbooks, isn’t that giving them more than enough exposure to the written word?

Obviously, research on the benefits of a love of reading shows otherwise. As a book lover and writer, my emotional response is that those who don’t read miss out on more important experiences than social media can offer. The world of the written word, whether in a leather-bound novel or the digital version of a newspaper, is a rich and wonderful place that makes just about anything possible. We broaden our horizons each time we enter deeply personal or imagined worlds that can change our outlook on life, teach us how to grow our own vegetables, or, like Hermione, offer us the secrets to saving the world. Learning how those mysterious black squiggles on the page translate into words and phrases is only the first part of reading. The second part, more important, is learning to love what we find between the covers.

The reliance on social media as a means of reading rather than more authoritative resources is also helping to fuel beliefs among some about unscientific platitudes such as vaccines causing autism or that there is no evidence that masks help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Reading for pleasure is not the same as assigned reading because kids need to be able to relax with the reading material of their choice, according to Kids Read Now. When I was a child, my son used to finish reading it for school and then sigh with delight saying, “Now I can read.”

Parents play a critical role, but many don’t realize how important it is to expose their children to books, magazines, and the like. Strong library funding, dedicated specifically to outreach, children’s book sections, and fun and free activities for families, would go a long way. Instead of informing parents about the grading rubrics that are used, reading for pleasure should be one of the main topics conveyed to parents, at all levels of instruction.

Giving older students more choice in what they read in class would help encourage reading for pleasure as well, while still requiring those books to have some rigor. The class could choose as a group or students could choose from a menu of options instead of being assigned a single book. When we choose books for children, we deprive them of the experience of realizing that there is a larger world of books for them to explore. Teachers should keep in mind that black students are less likely to read for pleasure; It should come as no surprise that many of the school-assigned books, which emphasize white roles, are not exactly a literary draw for them.

This is not lowering the academic level of the school. It is the realization that the love of reading throughout life provides a satisfying pleasure for the soul and an extrinsic benefit. One of the best forms of learning parents and teachers can impart to children is the pleasure of immersing themselves in reading material, whether it’s a nature poem, a murder mystery, or an article about fast cars.

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