Reading is declining in the United States. Longitudinal studies have shown a steady decrease in the number of adults that read for pleasure. It seems that pop culture gets the blame for many of society’s ills and this issue is no different. Crain in the Twilight of Books, and this article in the Washington Post both imply or directly blame movies and video games for the decline. However as Sydney Pollack pointed out, the industry might not deserve all the blame it is getting.
There is one connection however that I think is important, that people talking about adult reading habits aren’t discussing. Of course, correlation does not equal causation. However, it’s interesting that the decline in reading habits inversely coordinate with the increase in standards for early childhood education. And this is where I get on my soapbox.
More “rigorous” academic standards have been the rallying cry in the political and education scene for decades. However, those actually in the field of early childhood education and research are continually trying to point out that there is such a thing as Too Much Too Soon.
Early literacy is important. There is a considerable body of research on the importance of literacy and reading related to other indicators of well-being and success, academic and otherwise. There is no denying the benefits of literacy.
However, statistics, such as those illustrated above are often used to justify the “push down” of academics. We would never push a baby down the stairs because we’ve randomly decided that a six-month-old needs to develop large motor skills sooner. But essentially we are pushing children down the intellectual stairs. Their brains have not suddenly evolved in the last 50 years to do tasks they are not ready to do. Lillian Katz, Professor Emerita of Early Childhood Education at the University of Illinois, and Past President of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, has joined others in expressing concern about the long-term negative impacts that pushing “academic” goals, such as early reading, can have.
Boys especially are susceptible to the consequences. The concern is that if you push a child before they are ready, they will be frustrated, learn to hate reading and don't read for pleasure as they grow older. In this article from The Guardian Lillian Katz states, “It can be seriously damaging for children who see themselves as inept at reading too early”. She suggests formal reading instruction shouldn’t even begin till age 7, which is the age widely agreed upon which most children are ready to read.
Bev Bos, noted early childhood educator and advocated, pointed out that when a child is READY to read it takes a total of 24 one-hour lessons to teach them how to read. If pushed before that it will take substantially longer, be more frustrating, and much less enjoyable for both child and teacher.
Maybe it’s time as Mr. Pollack suggested in "The Way We Are" that we look to a place closer to home for the answers. If as parents we buy into the societal messages we are getting that our children are BEHIND if they don’t know all their letters and numbers before they even get into kindergarten and if we refuse to stand up to developmentally inappropriate practices in our schools, we could unconsciously be doing great harm to our children down the road.
How do we create a generation of readers? We encourage a generation of adults who are more concerned about story, about reading your child’s favorite book over and over again until they can “read” it from memory. We sing songs with children; we let them play with bubbles (and develop visual tracking skills), we snuggle them at night with a book, we put on puppet shows, we teach them rhymes and poems, we encourage them to ask questions and tell their own stories. We foster wonder. I believe this is the fastest way to revive reading and books.
What was your experience of learning to read? Do you read for pleasure as an adult now? What do you think has contributed to the decline of reading in America?