Do our students read enough? Are technologies crowding out recreational reading time? Given the importance of reading in a free society, where an educated population is essential, these are important questions. Reading engages the mind, exercises the imagination, and improves concentration. Through literature we interact with other literate people across time and space. Good literature may reinforce our beliefs or challenge them. Literature provides a model for us as we compose our own essays and stories. Students who do not read great writing cannot be expected to produce great writing. More importantly, children who do not read will become adults who do not read.
It is worth asking ourselves whether school, with its increased emphasis on testing, testing, testing, is crowding out time that students formerly spent reading literature. Is it possible the increased emphasis on skills that can be readily measured by end-of-grade tests means less emphasis on reading and evaluating great literature? Without exposure to literature in school, young people are less likely to be aware of or to read literature outside class. Easy books based on popular culture are the literary equivalent of junk food, yet those are the books children are more likely to access without an educated adult to guide them toward more challenging titles. Here is an area where librarians can help to fill the gap, by actively encouraging young people to tackle great literature.
Another way in which modern education might be endangering reading is the great reliance on textbooks. Students read only excerpts from a literature book or history book rather than reading an entire novel or biography. This is the literary equivalent of a snack instead of a full meal. Good readers can be turned off by textbooks, since textbooks are written to be accessible to the hypothetical average student. A good reader wants to be challenged--to interact with a greater mind. Textbooks are designed to cover a state's standard course of study, not to serve as models of good literature. A better approach than textbooks is the "living books" approach (see Shafer) used by Charlotte Mason and adopted by many modern home schools and private schools. This approach uses great literature and biographies rather than textbooks, and encourages students to learn to write by copying examples of good literature for handwriting practice. For example, students could study American history by using a history textbook, memorizing Patrick Henry's "War Inevitable" speech, and reading great literature such as Johnny Tremain and Carry On, Mr. Bowditch.
Many simply blame the decline in recreational reading on the proliferation of electronics. Television time certainly displaces some reading time for many people. Recreational computer use can also be anti-reading if the internet is used only for watching video clips of silly pet tricks or looking up movie times at the local theater. However, I agree with the Electronic Literature Organization that our electronics are also a tool that can enhance literary reading (see Kirschenbaum 1-2). The computer can even provide quality new literature for our reading pleasure and enrichment. Seek out quality reading material for children online and they will read.
Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. "A Response to Reading at Risk." letter on behalf of Electronic Literature Organization.