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Reading at Risk Commentary


by Marilyn Reynolds - February 14, 2005

The release of the National Endowment for the Arts’ (NEA) Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America in July, set educators and pundits spinning about this latest perceived national crisis. The results of the survey are disheartening: Less than half of American adults now read literature; the youngest age groups showed a 28% decline, the greatest decline of all. According to the report, the overall “. . .rate of decline is increasing and . . . has nearly tripled in the last decade.”

The release of the National Endowment for the Arts’ (NEA) Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America in July, set educators and pundits spinning about this latest perceived national crisis. The results of the survey are disheartening: Less than half of American adults now read literature; the youngest age groups showed a 28% decline, the greatest decline of all. According to the report, the overall “. . .rate of decline is increasing and . . . has nearly tripled in the last decade.”


YIKES! My first response to the bad news was to curl up with the latest Russell Banks novel and lose myself in another world. But whenever I closed the book to share a cup of tea with my husband, or to take the dog for her afternoon walk, the bad news was right there, bubbling to consciousness.


Much of my life as a teacher has been spent encouraging reading in reluctant learners. It is a delight to see the previous non-reader sitting engrossed in Go Ask Alice, or Always Running, and to hear the pride in a student’s voice when he/she announces, “This is the first book I ever read.” Best of all is the question, “Got anymore good books?” because it heralds the beginning of a lifelong reading habit, and that is perhaps the greatest gift we can offer our students.


The NEA Chairman Dana Gioia, in announcing the survey findings, stated “Reading develops a capacity for focused attention and imaginative growth that enriches both private and public life . . .” My own life has been greatly enriched by reading, and I have seen significant personal and academic growth in at-risk students once they begin reading for pleasure. So when the pay-off is so great, why are we not reading more, rather than less?


The answers are varied and complex, and my range of expertise is quite limited in comparison to many who have already offered in-depth analyses of causes and cures for the decline in literary reading. For my own part, though, I would like to point the focus of Language Arts education toward developing joy and meaning in the reading. Too many schools devote the lion’s share of their limited energies and resources to demanding, pushing, and cajoling, students to jump through a myriad of hoops for the sake of testing well, or reaching committee imposed goals that have little meaning to, or obvious bearing on students’ own lives and interests. This is not education. This is intimidation, and it does not prepare our youth to become the independent learners a fulfilling adult life demands.


Although much of the evidence is anecdotal, schools with programs that have twenty to thirty minute blocks of daily silent reading report significant changes in attitudes and practices related to reading for pleasure. Such schools become communities of readers, in which students recommend books to one another, and teachers and students share titles and reading experiences. Such programs offer the opportunity for students to develop their own reading tastes, and to find materials of meaning to their own lives. The key to such a program is to have a wide range of reading materials available, and to offer guidance that is more along the lines of, “here’s a book you might like--want to try it?” than the standard demand to read a “classic” that requires constant explication for understanding.


Lest I experience the wrath of the classics promoters, I’m not saying our students should not be exposed to Shakespeare, or Dickens. California Standards require students to read and respond to “historically or culturally significant works of literature,” and it is important for us to help students understand works that have so greatly influenced our culture. But for the vast majority of students, such exposure does not lead to a lifelong, reading for pleasure habit. In fact, for all too many students, such books bring a sense of dread to the reading process.


And what is “literary” reading, anyway? It’s another matter of someone else’s opinion. All non-fiction reading was excluded from the “literary reading” category in the NEA survey. Yet William Styron’s essay, “A Case of the Great Pox,” and Barbara Kingsolver’s essay, “High Tide in Tucson,” are replete with figurative language, irony, and metaphor, and, in ways that defy analysis, are beautifully written. They strike me as highly literary, yet they are both non-fiction. If the decline in “literary reading” is a result of readers switching to such non-fiction reading and losing credibility in the survey, then we might all rest easy. Realist that I am, though, I doubt that theory would hold up with further examination.


As the author of a series of realistic teen fiction, I treasure the email from readers and teachers that sometimes shows up in my inbox. Just last week a teacher sent this excerpt from a book report: “I really liked the last couple of books that I've read. . . . [they] are encouraging and easy to relate to. I plan to read the whole Hamilton High series. My favorite so far is Detour for Emmy. I picked the right time to start reading these books. My boyfriend and I were kinda confused with things, but after reading Detour for Emmy and But What About Me, I realized that I could be treated a lot better, and be happier. So I thank Marilyn Reynolds for that."


Perhaps reading realistic teen fiction, or R.L.Stine, or Judy Blume, does not lead to “literary” reading. But such books often lead to reading for pleasure, which is the first step on a lifelong reading journey. If we are to reverse the trend toward a nation of non-readers, we must help our students take that first baby step toward a reading habit, by helping them connect to books of their own choosing, and allowing time each day for them to practice the habit. Elisabeth Sifton, a highly respected New York book editor, was quoted sometime back as saying, “Almost nothing in our culture encourages the private moment of reading.” I believe it is our job, as educators to offer such moments.


Reading independently for one’s own purpose is what keeps a reading habit alive and healthy long after school years are ended. If we can expose our students to the joy of reading before they leave high school, we have a good chance of reversing the trend. If they only read books chosen by others, for the sake of meeting certain requirements and passing certain tests, I shudder to think what the NEA survey news will be in 2014.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 14, 2005
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11750, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 7:14:17 PM

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About the Author
  • Marilyn Reynolds

    E-mail Author
    MARILYN REYNOLDS is a prolific young adult novelist and Emmy Award nominee, who knows teens. She has taught reading to at-risk high school students for more than 30 years.
 
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