Friday, April 4, 2014

Why Teenagers Don't Read

I've been thinking about this a lot, mostly because I'm worried that reading as a whole is declining - which means, where will we be in a decade? Where will future authors be?

Teenagers are future adults. They're the future readers - if there are readers left.

Now, I know, I know, there are tons of teens who read, but it'd be a joke to say that there are more readers than non-readers. I'm guessing, but maybe a fifth of all teens read more than six books a year (voluntarily)? And that's a generous number.

If you think about it, there's no real reason (except the one that I will mention soon) which can explain this. Let me compare books to the ever-prosperous movie industry.

Do books cost a lot? No. The average paperback is less than ten dollars - about the price of a movie ticket. And teens go to the movies a lot.

Do books provide any less entertainment? No. Almost all readers (even teens) agree that books are better than their movie-versions. Books (good books) provide even more entertainment because they take longer to get through than movies.

Are books 'uncool' because reading is a solitary activity? No. I thought this might be the reason - movies are so prosperous because you can go with friends and that's 'cool' - but teenagers spend hours alone on the Internet or watching movies on the TV. They don't really care about being alone.

Are books just 'uncool'? Yes. But not for the reason you think.

I am a firm believer in the fact that books are uncool because it is mandatory for teens to read certain books for school. Ironically, forcing teens to read books is actually causing the decline of reading.

Think about it.

Say you're in a cinema class and you have to watch a movie a week and do reports on them. Every single movie gets a 3-page report. And this class is mandatory for everybody.

Do you think you will then go outside on Friday nights and watch movies? Heck no! You'll go get a book instead, maybe. Why would you want to watch another movie? Your eyes would be hurting and you'd rather faint than watch another frame of film. School and mandatory assignments would destroy your love for movies.

It's a psychological effect. Movies would forever become associated with the pain of book reports - and, even more so, the idea of 'mandatory,' and idea most teens hate. They'd break free of movies and never return because they never want to feel the same pain or be 'caged'. Maybe, in many years, this association would wear off. But it'll always linger.

I think the easiest solution to solving the teenage reading problem would be to get rid of mandatory reading. Then, a year later (a year later because there needs to be a gap where teenagers can 'rejoice' that they don't have to read books - and they won't read books, at least for a while, because they're too happy) - so, a year later, publish a bunch of really, really good books. The teens would not feel restricted and, given something good to read, they'd read it, because they have the choice. It's also psychologically proven that given some sort of degree of self-control drastically increases the work performance and happiness of a person.

But, of course, there are side effects: the decline of classic literature (most of which is taught in school), the confusion on how to teach English classes if not through literature, etc. So I don't think, truly, my solution would really work practically. I do think, however, that it would get rid of the stigma of reading.

I just really don't like this whole stigma on reading. Because, many times, the people who don't read books are the very people who need books the most to guide them and help them.


What do you guys think about the stigma on reading?


  1. My nephews don't read and it annoys the heck out of me. In school, I had a heavy reading requirement and I look forward to the yearly reading list. I may have been a nerd, though. haha.

  2. I'm going to have to disagree, because there's always been a mandatory reading requirement in school, and it never stopped kids from reading at their leisure if they were the reading type. And the YA market doesn't seem to be disappearing, so you probably should look at reading statistics or something before worrying and saying there shouldn't be mandatory reading in school. Some of my favorite books came from school reading requirements.

  3. I was going to say mandatory reading has been required for a long time, but Debra beat me to it. The problem lies in technology, not that I want to do away with technology. But there was a time when people would listen to long-winded speeches and debates for fun. Now I can't imagine a more boring past time. Prior to television, movies, computers, video games people would read, spend time with family, and find four hour speeches interesting. The more technology to capture our interest, the more we've been caught up with the "new shiny" and have spent less time on activities that take longer or take more effort.

  4. There's a certain tendency, I think, for every generation to look at younger generations and their context and say, "They're so different than we were! They don't [insert failing here] the way we used to." And very often, I think that tendency is simply wrong.

    In the 40s, there were concerns that radio plays and comics would bring an end to literacy. They didn't. In the 50s and 60s, television and movies were the thing that would make non-readers of us all. And that didn't happen. Then it was Sesame Street's ten-second segments in the 70s and 80s, and the internet and blogosphere in the 90s and early 2000s, and now I suppose it's all of that times the power of texting, social media, and YouTube.

    I work with students between the ages of 14-18, and they read CONSTANTLY. I often can't get them to keep up with the required reading because they're so sunk into their leisure reading (and honestly, I'd rather that than being sunk into a lot of other things). I have students ask me for books recs, and borrow from my personal library, every day. They go to libraries. They own Kindles. They stay up late shouting at each other about who they'd ship in this series or that.

    Obviously, my counter-argument here is only about as anecdotal as yours, S.C., but ten years of experience looking at teenagers tells me that most of them still really do love to escape into stories. Things are better than people fear.

  5. I don't know much about the stigma among teens because my kids aren't there yet. I have a son who is a "reader" and a son who is a "non-reader." Both have tested above their grade's reading level, but my "non-reader" doesn't read... at least not what his 3rd grade teacher wants. He enjoys comic books, science magazines, and instruction books. Sometimes, he opens a novel and reads a chapter or two from the middle. Trying to get my "non-reader" to read any book, fiction or nonfiction, from cover to cover is like pulling hair out. So I don't.
    As long as he does enough required reading to fulfill the assignments, I don't think it matters that he doesn't read for pleasure. But his teacher is going crazy trying to get him to read chapter books and take AR quizzes on them, even though it won't affect his grade. "You're my top reader," she tells him. And though he's never said it, his actions answer with a resounding, "So?"

  6. I'm an English teacher, and I'd say that things haven't changed that much: back in the dark ages (the early 80's) when I was in school, some kids read a lot and some didn't. What's changed is that both groups read less just because there's so much else on offer. I also think that teachers need to do things differently: instead of choosing literature that the kids'll hate, choose what they'll like, or, better yet, let them choose. The book lists in secondary schools today are almost exactly the same "classics" as were taught in my day! And come up with different tasks other than the worn-out book report or traditional essay.

  7. I agree with Rachel.

  8. I think required reading might be part of it, but there are some other factors too. One is the material that's required for reading in English classes. Teens can't always identify with classics that feature adult characters in situations that sometimes take hundreds of pages to play out (as opposed to today's fiction, where the "hook" has to come as early in the story as possible). There were some required reading books that a lot of students enjoyed (The Giver and The Outsiders are two that were pretty popular.) Others, not so much.
    Another factor is time. When I was in high school, almost every spare second when I wasn't in school was spent doing homework or going to church or some extracurricular activity. I had to squeeze in time for reading in between classes or when we had a test in class and I finished early and had nothing else to do. Even during the summer we had required reading for the next year's class.

  9. The times they are a changin'----Bob Dylan.
    I teach college freshman (and older) and they like to read. I had an interesting discussion about YA books and college students recently. I think that offering books that teens want to read, contemporary YA like John Green and Rainbow Rowell's books, Cassandra Clare, Leigh Burdugoc, Lani Taylor etc. along with a smattering of classics would be appropriate for a secondary school. Even Harry Potter would work. In an ideal world I'd give each student a Kindle Paperwhite loaded with the classroom books and offer the print copies if they'd prefer print. Oh, I'd also add graphic novels like The Walking Dead or The Watchmen to it. When I taught English Comp. I had the students write a 140 word story to post to Twitter. Now I'd use Instagram and Tumblr. Have the students do a pictorial display for a book they liked. We can't keep teaching the SAME WAY that's been taught for centuries (okay, I'm exaggerating a bit). Mix it up!