NY Times asks: “R U Really Reading Online?”

Yesterday The Times ran an article on Page One that was the first of a series that will investigate how the internet and other technological and social forces are changing the way people read. The article features several families with children who prefer to read on the Web rather than with books, in contrast to their parents, who are characterized as old fogies who still read books and newspapers, and reminisce about Walter Cronkite and Ed Sullivan on TV. There’s the 15 year old Cleveland girl named Nadia who spends six hours a day online, at sites like fanfiction.net and quizilla.com, which are sites that offer users the chance to create their own stories.

Now she regularly reads stories that run as long as 45 Web pages. Many of them have elliptical plots and are sprinkled with spelling and grammatical errors.“So like in the book somebody could die,” she continued, “but you could make it so that person doesn’t die or make it so like somebody else dies who you don’t like.” Nadia said she wanted to major in English at college and someday hopes to be published. She does not see a problem with reading few books. “No one’s ever said you should read more books to get into college,” she said.

Right. And brain surgeons don’t really need to go to medical school.

There’s also the high school senior from Greenwich CT who surfs over 100 technology and political blogs and websites daily. His name is Zachary, and although he loves to be online, he also reads books (he just finished The Fountainhead). Zachary is entering Columbia University this fall. Maybe Nadia should, like send a text message to Zachary, and ask him, “Like Zach, what book did you read before you went to college? And if it’s more than fifty pages(omg!), could you, like put a summary of it on fanfiction or something?”

After a healthy dose of apocalyptic anecdotes heralding the decline of literary standards among the youth of today, the article goes on to cite two notable findings:

  • A recent study of more than 700 low-income, mostly Hispanic and black sixth through 10th graders in Detroit found that those students read more on the Web than in any other medium, though they also read books.
  • One early study showed that giving home Internet access to low-income students appeared to improve standardized reading test scores and school grades. “These were kids who would typically not be reading in their free time,” said Linda A. Jackson, a psychology professor at Michigan State who led the research. “Once they’re on the Internet, they’re reading.”

While the article makes no mention of e-readers, (like the Kindle) the above reference leads me to believe that if e-books and e-readers were to become standard issue for low income teens, the achievement gap between whites and low income minorities would begin to diminish. Kindles and their ilk are cheaper than (most) computers, and provide unrestricted access to the one component that is the most highly correlated with academic success: books. The ability to read newspapers, magazines and blogs, is an added bonus that provides access to current developments and diverse viewpoints. All this without the cost of broadband access nor the distractions of YouTube. Texting’s not so good on it either. FWIW.

Does “Reading First” put reading last?

Several weeks ago the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to eliminate funding for the Reading First program, the groundbreaking but controversial Bush administration program that has given states $1 billion a year since 2002 to teach low-income elementary schoolers to read. A House committee also had voted to eliminate funding; if money is not restored before the federal budget is approved in the fall, the program could end. More about the program and the vote can be found in the July 1 USA Today

Any federally funded program targeting low income families is likely to be the target of criticism and the source of much debate on its effectiveness in addressing the problem. But I believe the comments of one sixth grade language arts teacher in Texas carry more weight than all the studies and reports cited in this legislative quagmire. Donalyn Miller is the author of the blog “The Book Whisperer“, and she makes the following observation:

The children cannot wait. They do not have more time. Students, who entered kindergarten in 2000, the year the National Reading Panel report came out, are in high school now. While Washington policymakers fumble to figure out what is best practice in getting children to read and crafting program after program claiming to have the answers, these children are graduating and breathing a sigh of relief that they never have to read a book again. …The only groups served by current trends to produce more and more programs for teaching reading are the publishing and testing companies who make billions of dollars from their programs and tests. …Meanwhile, the people who have the best ability in actually getting children to read—children’s book authors, parents, librarians, and teachers get the least credit (monetarily or otherwise). No hidden agenda exists with this group; they just want children to read…..When you take a forklift and shovel off the programs, underneath it all is a child reading a book….

Her concluding remark:

We don’t need another reading program; we need to go back to the first reading program—connecting children with books. This should always be our bottom line.

Enough said. (But not enough heard; the education industry lobbyists seem to drown people like Mrs. Miller’s voice out).

This blog is one of the best I have seen addressing the issue of how to instill a love of reading among young people today. Highly recommended reading.