Fewer kids enjoy reading today than ever before. At least, that’s what a report released December 12 by People for Education has found. Disappointing but not entirely surprising, given the impossibly large number of video games, Internet sites, movies, and TV channels competing for kids’ attention these days. Kids are used to instant gratification; they don’t want to spend time reading books with complicated plots or characters, or even magazine articles longer than a page. I suppose they’re simply mirroring their parents, many of whom get their news on-line, abbreviated articles highlighting the main facts.
You would think that book sellers would be looking at new ways to entice kids to read. Not so. Starting in January, books will only have 45 days on the shelves at Indigo, before being returned to publishers. Currently, they’re on shelves for 75 days, an extra month, before getting shipped back. And Heather Reisman, owner of Indigo Books & Music Inc., is also planning to increase her stock of non-book products from 25 percent to 50 percent within a couple of years. Her message is clear—she wants fewer books on her shelves because she sees a decreased number of people buying them.
Based on the report released by People for Education, she’s probably right. If only half of Ontario students from grades 3 to 6 said they enjoy reading now, compared to 76 percent of Grade 3 and 65 percent of Grade 4 students a decade ago, the future for reading looks grim.
In a Toronto Star article, Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education, suggests the Ontario government “set targets to boost the number of students who say they like to read, just as it has set targets for standardized test scores.”
But in a letter to the editor of the Toronto Star, a parent (Martha Kurtz Hogan), argues that standard tests are to blame for turning kids off reading. “The relentless focus on preparing for the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) tests meant that, instead of being urged to find books they loved and talk to the class about why they loved them, students were endlessly being asked to identify three text-to-self (or text-to-text or text-to-world) connections in set stories assigned at school.”
Though I realize the purpose of standardized tests, as a parent, writer, and avid reader, I have to agree that forcing particular stories upon students, and then evaluating them in terms of expected test answers, would pretty much destroy anyone’s love of reading.
Perhaps the solution is more time for reading in classrooms. Any books will do, so that students can discover new genres and styles. And there should be no assignments associated with this reading time. I remember having a couple of teachers who allowed ten to fifteen minutes a day for reading. It was my favourite time of the day, when I could immerse myself in words and images, and forget about fitting in. This didn’t seem to take away from what they needed to teach, and I don’t recall any major behavioural problems during this reading time. Well, maybe there were one or two kids who had zero interest in reading, but there will always be a couple of non-conformists.
We also need to ensure that books are accessible to all students, regardless of location, language, or income. This means books in stores (please pay attention Ms. Reisman), media campaigns promoting reading, making it look as cool as it is (think Nike commercial with books), and more incentives for reading from schools, bookstores, and libraries.
While there will continue to be debate about how to increase students’ love of reading, one thing is clear: if the number of devoted readers continues to fall, so too will the next generation’s ability to write well. I imagine a written world consisting mainly of concise text messages, and see the beauty words create disappearing as quickly as you can delete whole pages on the computer. I see shelves of books gathering dust in Value Village, as parents line up at a nearby Future Shop, paying hundreds of dollars for the latest video games, and wonder where we went wrong.
Shelly Sanders’ first book, Rachel’s Secret, will hit shelves in the U.S. and Canada April 16. This means you have until May 30, in Canada, to purchase this book before it’s whisked back to Second Story Press.