It’s a disease schools must cure: Undergraduates hate reading.
Students I’ve taught at good state and private schools send me around in circles searching for ways to reveal the joy in a good novel, story or work of creative nonfiction. I find topical texts, movie tie-ins, shorter and shorter works and, of course, the greatest story-tellers, speakers and sentence-crafters I know. Still, they moan when I distribute a pared-down version of “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in class, Oh my God! Do we have to read all this? Really?
Then they don’t read it. They find a summary on the web and call that sufficient. When I explain that settling for a summary is like mistaking a map of Paris for a visit to Paris, they shrug. They have no experience with the delight superb reading brings.
Informal web research reveals I’m hardly alone in my desperation.
Reluctance to read matters. Nonreaders suffer on the job. Reading often — and taking on challenging texts — not only makes us swifter, stronger readers, capable of gleaning necessary details from a white paper or careening through a relevant Wall Street Journal piece before a meeting. It affects all other skills.
Those who don’t read lack models for writing. Those who don’t write well, don’t perform well in professional contexts. Just ask managers of recent graduates. Science shows reading literature increases empathy. The ability to see the world from another’s perspective is fundamental to critical thinking — another skill employers believe recent graduates sorely need. In my view, reading widely also enriches our personal lives, helps us navigate ambiguous ethical situations and reduces polarizing tendencies. Good books incinerate black-and-white thinking. They make us uncomfortable, and they make us better people.
Colleges point to high school educators as the problem; high school teachers point to elementary educators. Everyone points to standardized tests and the rise of technologies catering to short attention spans. But the problem is everyone’s — and those smartphones aren’t going away any sooner than the need for high levels of literacy on the job.
The good news
Developing technologies might rescue reading for the future. Enhanced eBooks and textbooks — digital books that include audio, video and animation — could bring students back to the word. It may seem counterintuitive, but I’ve seen enhanced digital texts work first-hand with young students I’ve tutored. I’ve watched seven-year-olds utterly disgusted with reading transform into eager book lovers after a few weeks with a lively text like The Numberlys or The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. Similarly, enhanced books targeted to older audiences could wake college students up to the charms of reading,too.
The enhanced books serve as a bridge. Most reluctant college-age readers are struggling readers. They’re literate in the basic sense, but not in a developed sense. They don’t practice — or even know — the habits of strong readers. For instance, strong readers reread. Weak readers give up immediately when they don’t fully understand a passage. Strong readers stop and visualize what they’re reading. Weak readers don’t “see” what they read. Strong readers interact with a challenging text— usually by way of taking notes. Weak readers remain passive.
An enhanced digital text teaches students the habits of strong readers. The books can turn students into interactive readers who reread passages and visualize what’s on the page. Many K–12 educators teach reading as a decoding process with little emphasis on the senses — or on meaning. Such an approach can inadvertently create a two-dimensional understanding of reading. Enhanced texts also serve as a wonderful supplement in those contexts, ensuring students experience the joy books offer from an early age.