Young Adults Don’t Read. Here’s What We Can Do About It.

column | Literacy

Young Adults Don’t Read. Here’s What We Can Do About It.

By Kimberly Rues (Columnist)     May 14, 2019

Young Adults Don’t Read. Here’s What We Can Do About It.

Compared with the past, the majority of young adults don’t read for pleasure. It’s not that they can’t. It’s that they choose not to.

In 1980, 60 percent of 12th graders said they read a book, newspaper or magazine every day that wasn’t assigned for school, one study found. By 2016, only 16 percent did—a huge drop, even though the book, newspaper or magazine could be one read on a digital device (the survey question doesn’t specify format). The number of 12th graders who said they had not read any books for pleasure in the last year nearly tripled, landing at one out of three.

As a librarian, that hurts my heart more than a little bit. Having spent almost half my career trying to put the right book in the hands of every kid, it feels more than a little demoralizing.

Reading has the potential to open doors, expand horizons, and provide escape. But it’s also the perfect vehicle for information, for figuring out a how-to or just keeping up with interests that have nothing to do with a book. In the academic world, with the best of intentions toward churning out lifelong readers, I think sometimes we make the path to readerhood a bit single-minded.

Take, for starters, my own son. He’s a nonfiction guy all the way—techy stuff, cool cars, sports updates, news from the music world. He reads when he needs to figure out a problem or when he’s curious about something. I can’t remember the last time he picked up a novel.

While I sometimes wish he would, because I believe in the transformative power of fiction, now I see that’s really OK.

When he was in about third grade, we entered into what amounted to a multi-year power struggle over what he chose to read. You see, I knew about all these wonderful novels, and I wanted him to feel the power of a compelling story. He wanted none of it.

I ended up making reading a chore (for both of us), leaving a bad taste in his mouth about books that lasts to this day. In hindsight, I wish I had just backed away slowly and let his interests take the lead.

Most of us in education love a good story, believe in the power of tales to evoke empathy and desperately want to share that experience with our students. Our English programs are often centered around what we deem worthy—classic, can’t-leave-high-school-without-reading titles. In elementary school, we often insist that students have a chapter book with them at all times.

When we tempt students with wonderful novels with rich characters, intriguing plotlines, and deep themes, and they bite… that’s great. But I’d argue that it’s also OK if they don’t. If they choose to read a nonfiction title about one of their interests, they are finding value in those words.

But if we’re going to offer them reading as something that enriches life, I have a sneaking suspicion that success is all in the approach. As I dig back in my memories, there were two years where it seemed as though my son might catch the reading bug. His fourth grade teacher used powerful read alouds to lure kids into loving books. She read with great expression, knew how to leave them hanging at a critical plot point right before lunch and the novels she chose were the kind that bury themselves in your heart with compelling characters, deep themes and rich word choice.

Then she pitched them sequels, other books by that author, and read-alikes and they gobbled those up like mad. The love of a good story was contagious.

Eighth grade was the year of choice. The class regularly went to the library to hear book talks, to browse the stacks, and as they year went on, the class became a reading community featuring spontaneous (and honest) book reviews, natural conversations around a shared read and plenty of genres in circulation. The one constant: each title a student read was their own choice. That was the game changer.

Penny Kittle, author of “Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers” believes with her whole heart in the power of student self-selected reading. Her book opens with a quote from Kate DiCamillo that sums up our charge: “Reading should not be presented to a child as a chore, a duty. It should be offered as a gift.”

When I think of a gift, the key element is that the recipient wants it. Not only is it something that we know will bring them joy, but it’s something they’re open to and ready for. Sure, I’m that mom who snuck a toothbrush into my kids’ Easter baskets and tucked some socks into their Christmas stockings, but in addition to those practical “gifts,” my kids opened presents they’d asked for and snarfed down candy they liked. They’d see the toothbrush/socks and smile (or provide an epic teenage eye roll), knowing they needed them. But as those practical things were offered in the context of plenty of delightful things, they were never perceived as negative.

Reading offers so much. It opens doors, provides escape, unravels mysteries and deepens our understanding of people and places. When, in good conscience, we assign particular readings to our students, what we’re inadvertently doing is narrowing the door. They may interpret our offerings as too hard; they may be intimidated by our choices.

So how do we open the door? How do we help them grow into readers who seek information, get lost in a story and dig deep for the themes that make great literature so powerful? It comes down to one simple caveat: give them a reason to read. For Penny, it’s about connection and community.

It’s imperative that we meet them where they are. If that means they’re reading “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” for the nth time, so be it. The decision to read something else must be their own. But that doesn’t mean we sit back, twiddle our thumbs and wait for the magic to strike. This is where the reading community becomes an essential part of the solution. Book by book, we build authority with kids—offering them compelling stories of courage, books that give them a peek into lives other than their own, or in some cases, connecting with the lives they’re living.

We can host booktalks, share video book trailers and maintain a rich classroom library (and as a librarian, I’ll toss in a shout out for the school library too). And perhaps most importantly, we can give kids the chance to talk—to share books they’ve read and to marvel at the author’s craft. That kid who only reads “Diary of a Wimpy Kid?” She’s listening. And given that her peers are the ones who are saying, “You have to read this book…” the likelihood that she’ll give it a whirl (at some point) increases dramatically.

I’d also suggest that a good array of nonfiction needs to be in that mix too because although it will likely never be my genre of choice, it’s entirely possible that an informational text might strike a chord with a student. And to be fair, in a true reading community, if there’s a kid who suggests that I’m missing out if I don’t explore a nonfiction book they’re over the moon about, then perhaps I should be willing to give it a go? It’s plausible that my own reading lens may be widened too.

In my own work, I’m striving to be the kind of librarian and teacher who shows kids how reading can open doors, but I accept readers where they are, and continue to work toward building a strong and vibrant reading community. I advocate for student choice with teachers, mentor librarians to encourage open book selection, and make sure that even the 3-year-olds in my preschool library have the choice between fiction and nonfiction.

Penny’s work is broader in scope, and she continues to spread the word about getting books in kids’ hands through her Book Love Foundation, by connecting with educators across the country through speaking engagements and professional development offerings, and by sharing insightful essays full of reflection and wisdom via her podcast, Stories from the Teaching Life.

Whatever our role, no matter our reach, in the end, it comes down to this charge from Penny:

We can change the story of reading.
We have to.
Every child. Every year. Every classroom.
Book love—pass it on.

I’m in. Are you?

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