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Is Reading Being Replaced?

With so much to watch and so much to do, a long-loved pastime seems to be fading away -- though it still has its fans

September 24, 2017

It is well known that the current generation over-consumes media. Smartphones, video streaming, and social media seem to have taken over the lives of children and adults alike. 

Less well known, however, is that with the increase in media usage has come a drastic decrease in another activity — reading. 

Both recreationally and academically, reading was once an enjoyable, daily pastime in which people of all ages participated. However, it is now considered anby many to be almost obsolete.

Each day, the average American teenager spends over six-and-a-half hours consuming media via screens, according to a 2015 study conducted by Common Sense Media, a San Francisco based nonprofit that provides research and analyses on healthy media use.The study showed that electronic media take up most of an average American teenager’s time. Books often don’t make the cut.

And when it comes to reading for school, students almost automatically turn to online resources to somewhat do the work for them — even if that means reading a classic.

“I’ve spoken with students who very rarely read a book in its entirety – and that’s an issue – and either use their peers or online resources to kind of skate by,” said General Studies Principal and English teacher Mr. Daniel Weslow.

 

An online Boiling Point poll of 60 female and 47 male Shalhevet students last spring found that 43 percent reported relying on online resources rather than books to pass English class and opted not to read in their free time.

Half the students polled said they never read books that weren’t assigned for school.  But the poll, supported by student interviews, found an undercurrent of readers as well, with seven students who reported reading for pleasure every day and 22 who read leisurely at least once a week.

Still, there are some who still read regularly, and enjoy doing so. Around 30 students polled said they read either every day or at least once a week, and others who did not take the poll said they enjoy reading and often discuss books with their friends.

Senior Sam Hirschhorn’s love ofreading began as a kid, when he read instead of watching television. He recently read The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay.

Then again, Sam didn’t have the usual media distractions.

“I actually don’t have a TV in my house,” Sam said. “So I read when I was a kid. I couldn’t watch TV.”

Still a reader today, rather than reading consistently every night, Sam said he “binge reads.”

“Sometimes I don’t read for a while, and then I’ll read an entire book in one or two nights,” he said.

Sophomore Neima Fax reads every night. For her, reading is a routine that is rarely hindered by schoolwork. She is now reading the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan.

“I always read books that captivate me, so I want to read more,” said Neima. “It’s not like, ‘Oh I should make time to read.’ I want to read.”

Mr. Weslow wishes that were not so unusual.

“There is a subculture of real readers that enjoy it, and I don’t think that they shy away from engaging in that conversation,” said Mr. Daniel Weslow. “But I’d love to see that a little bit more enhanced around the community for sure.”

 

Another challenge is the availability of online “cheat sheets” such as SparkNotes, Cliffs Notes, and Shmoop, which summarize books in relatively simple English. Sites like these are tempting for many students and pose big challenges for teachers.

For some students, such resources have completely replaced reading. Asked whether they had ever read an entire book for English class, 28 students, or 26 percent of those who participated in the poll, said no. 

Nearly half, or 43 percent, said such resources supplement their reading, and 35 students, or 33 percent, said they use Sparknotes instead of reading for some parts of the book.

Only 13 percent of students polled said they read the entire book assigned for school.

In another question, the poll found that 65 students, or 61 percent, were more likely to use an online book shortcut when they disliked the book.

For some students, using SparkNotes feels immoral — though they may do it anyway.

“For me personally I feel it’s kind of like a shortcut,” said Neima. “I feel guilty about that. It’s kind of like cheating, I guess, but not really. I just read the book usually.”

English teachers at Shalhevet apparently do not micromanage student’s usage of resources like SparkNotes, according to British Literature and Jewish Literature teacher Ms. Na’amit Nagel.

“You could spend so much effort making sure kids don’t read them that you forget to focus on what’s actually important,” Ms. Nagel said.

She suggested that perhaps students are using SparkNotes, because they are focused on getting answers. She wishes they would instead grapple with the questions.

“I’m sick of students thinking they need to find the answers,” Ms. Nagel said. “And that’s why they go on these websites. You need to find the questions. Hold on to the questions. Don’t be obsessed with these quick answers that someone else wrote for you in a really snappy fun way so you actually want to read them. That’s when you lose the fun of it. Maybe that’s why you don’t want to read.”

“Spark-noting” — so common that it’s now used as a verb — a book also means losing out on an authentic reading experience, she said.

“The author wanted you to read it five times,” Ms. Nagel said. “They are trying to get at something deep, and you’re supposed to put the time and effort to figuring out what that is.”

Junior Ariella Sassover agreed.

“There’s just so much imagery that you’re missing out on and understanding when you don’t actually read the book and you’re just getting a summary version online.”

English class is a different ballgame when students are not reading, but it might not be all bad. Senior Daniel Lorell is one of the students who doesn’t read most books.

“If the goal of an English class is to have the kids read the book,” said Daniel, “then yeah, it’s on the teacher to have some sort of really rigorous tests that can’t be beaten by reading Shmoop or SparkNotes or Cliffnotes or anything like that.

“But if the point of English is this philosophical discovery of the human condition, then maybe it’s not such a bad thing [to not read the book].”

While a significant number of students may not be reading books, many of those same students still claim their grades in English are not affected by that choice. 

“I do fairly well in English and I am very engaged, even though I don’t really read the books,” Daniel said.

For some students, even annotation checks by teachers are not an incentive to read, as they can find other ways to make the teacher think they have read.

“Kids will just randomly underline things in their books so it looks like they’ve annotated,” said alumnus Micha Thau ‘17, who said he usually did read the books.

Mr. Weslow said he was aware of this phenomenon.

“I have heard students in the halls like, “Hey can you fill me in on exactly what happened, can you just give me a quick summary?” Mr. Weslow said.

Mr. Weslow said he would rather students ask him for extensions and assistance than fake it in class.

“I’d much rather have that conversation – and have that conversation a couple of times – than think something is amazing that somebody said and come to find out like two months later they pulled that directly from SparkNotes.”

 

The problem is national. In 2014, Common Sense Media published a 25-page research brief on reading among children and teens nationwide. The report found that 53 percent of American 9-year-olds read for their own enjoyment every day, compared to only 17 percent of 17-year olds. 

Overall, the report showed that teenagers are not only reading less than children, but less than teenagers used to read as well. 

Daniel Lorell said he read books a lot more when he was younger but hardly finds the motivation to read anymore. 

“I have just like started watching a lot more videos and listening to podcasts more instead of reading, and that’s sort of replaced that want to absorb stories,” said Daniel, who is taking Honors Film this year instead of a literature course.

Another factor that may account for the lack of reading is that relaxation and media consumption are simply done differently by today’s teenagers.

Freshman Hannah Berman said she reads a lot less than she used to, and said that technology usage prevents teens from reading.

“I can never find a book that’s really interesting to me the way I used to,” said Hannah. “They probably think that they have better things to do, like be on technology. If I didn’t have a computer or phone, I’d probably read more.”

With the ability to take in information through apps such as Twitter, which only allows users 140 characters for text messages and links, reading full-length articles or books seems impossibly old-fashioned and slow. 

Unlike television or movies, which draw viewers in from the start, books take time until readers get to the point where they are fully engaged.

With digital media readily available and requiring minimal brain power, it can be hard to pick up a book instead.

“A lot happens before you see any action and it takes a long time unless you’re a very quick reader.” said Micha Thau. “It takes something out of you.

“Why would I imagine a paradise world with great colors and magic and whatever when I could just watch it on television – have someone else imagine it for me?”

 

Mr. Weslow thinks the reading – or lack of reading – trend may also be attributed to students’ poor time management skills.

Last February, Mr. Weslow gave his sophomores a week-long reading assignment that was due on a Friday, and noticed when most students turned the assignment in.

“It was fascinating to see the Schoology discussion board emails that I got coming in Thursday night or Friday morning right before class,” he said, noting that the assignment could have easily been done much earlier in the week.

But time is an issue even for students who enjoy reading. Ironically, sometimes what prevents them from reading is other schoolwork.

By the time some students get home from school or a co-curricular and finish their homework and studying, it can be well into the night, so they reason it is better to get the extra hour of sleep than spend an hour reading.

Ariella Sassover, an avid reader currently reading Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells, said that when she doesn’t have enough time to read, which is often the case, it is because of school.

“I have so many classes and so much homework and reading for school that I don’t have that much time to read my own books just out of self interest, but I try to as much as I can,” said Ariella.

According to Ms. Nagel, finding time to read is not just a challenge for high school students, but for adults as well.

“It’s a real challenge at all points in life, but I do think you have to work to make it a priority,” Ms. Nagel said.

Even as an English teacher, Ms. Nagel herself said it is hard to find time to read outside of what she needs to do to prepare for her classes.

But just days before her Boiling Point interview, Ms. Nagel read a transcribed interview with former president Barack Obama about his favorite literary pieces and his view on the importance of reading.

“Obama read while in the White House,” she said. “If the president of the United States can make time to read, then I really have no excuse for not making time to read.

“He is the busiest man in the world probably and he knew the importance of reading literature.”

 

The question many students might have about all this is whether it matters. Their teachers, of course, think it does.

Ms. Nagel said that reading  is important because it gives kids tools to understand the world and themselves.

“I think reading helps you understand people in worlds that are different than you and the more you can understand the other the more you can grow as an individual and the more you can understand the world,” she said.

Micha Thau said the fact that students are not reading means the community has a lot to think about.

“I have a friend who told me she hadn’t read any book at all throughout all of high school and got an A in English in every semester,” Micha said. “It is something to consider. Like what are we doing wrong or what can we do so this doesn’t happen?”

Mr. Weslow said changing the culture around reading is “going to come through a number of different changes” that range from finding a space on campus to dedicate to quiet reading to instituting school-wide summer reading.

“Some of them can be how we approach it in the classroom,” Mr. Weslow said, “Some of it’s coming from our student body, some of it can be like even doing some funky, cool things with our space on campus to promote that.”

In her 12th-grade Creative Writing class, Ms. Michelle Crincoli has tried to combat the lack of interest many students have in reading by introducing her students to flash fiction, shorter pieces of literature around 1,000 words.

Ms. Nagel said she encourages reading by requiring students to do a close analysis of excerpts from the readings in class or in essays, a practice she calls “close reading.” 

“I try to do a lot of close reading and just keep kids in the book as much as possible — not have screens out in class, read from the book– so even if a kid doesn’t read it for homework they have had to read in the book somehow,” she said.

 

Perhaps the future will offer modernized forms of reading.

 

Daniel Lorell said that instead of reading Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray for this past year’s summer reading assignment, he listened to an audio book.

“That kind of made me wonder, what is the difference?” Daniel said. “It’s the same text. It’s just not my mind saying it to myself. I’m listening to someone else say it. If that’s the same as the book, is it really such a huge leap from a book to a TV show or movie?”

Another such method may be through graphic novels. In Ms. Crincoli’s ninth-grade class, students read the graphic novel version of The Odyssey and the graphic novel Persepolis. Both use graphics and minimal text to convey the storyline.

“I know a lot of literary people will say, ‘Kids shouldn’t be reading graphic novels,’” Ms. Crincoli said. “I disagree. I think that might be a little bit of the way of the future for students, where they can kind of get that depth for storytelling along with the art.”

Ariella and Micha said they look back favorably at their reading experiences in middle school, where they were often incentivized to read outside of schools by fun assignments or reading competitions.

And even though Micha said he reminisces about those days, he knows said it wasn’t practical for high school.

“I think that was very good,” Micha said during second semester of his senior year. “It required a lot of outside reading. But that’s something I don’t have time for anymore.”

Similarly, Mr. Weslow said he liked the structured community reading that he experienced while working at New Roads, but does not see something like that realistically playing out at Shalhevet.

“I love that kind of concept,” Mr. Weslow said. “That’s not the answer, but it is something where we can be better at creating a culture of reading.”

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