Teens & the Need to Read More

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Teens & the Need to Read More

Geraldine Markel, PhD 

You wouldn’t expect a walk around the block to adequately prepare someone to run a marathon. By the same token, the act of exchanging text messages, Tweets, Facebook statuses, or Buzzfeed listicles does not adequately prepare young people for the demands of higher-level reading and writing tasks. To learn to use and analyze language well, kids need to be exposed to extensive vocabulary, varied sentence structure, and the challenge of interpreting text and spoken-word information and imagery. They need to read and hear quality, interesting fiction and non-fiction.

Parents and schools these days feel pressured to keep students busy with classes and activities that are supposed to guide them toward acceptance to a good university. These obligations—plus the siren call of electronic gaming and communication—erode time once spent on reading books “for fun.” What families may lose sight of, however, is the value of immersing oneself in a great story. In his OP ED piece, Read, Kids, Read, Frank Bruni laments that, “Fewer than 20 percent of 17-year-olds now read for pleasure ‘almost every day’. Back in 1984, 31 percent did.” Bruni goes on to describe research that indicates an important relationship between reading and intellect, as well as benefits of reading such as the ability to relax, focus, cultivate delayed gratification, and empathize.

Engaging in “college prep” courses and activities to the exclusion of reading for pleasure is counter-productive; admissions interviewers and essay evaluators want to hear about a student’s curiosity, passions, and appreciation of the larger context and purpose for his or her studies. Asking what a student chooses to read can be far more illuminating than scanning a list of what he or she is required to read. Once accepted to college, the demands on students to navigate more sophisticated types of reading and writing only increase. Interviewers for internships, employment, and graduate/professional schools expect young people to be able to process complex textual information as well as answer extemporaneous questions using vocabulary and sentence structure that reflect their experiences and capabilities.

School-based incentives for “free reading” usually end before middle school. Some students remain enthusiastic readers while others drift away from it, especially in high school. Parents may need to exert some positive pressure to encourage their teens to read and listen to works that require more than just random, online surfing. Here are some suggestions for 14-17 year olds and their families:

For Teens:

  1. Start by reading anything that is interesting and easy-to-read for 20 to 30 minutes, at least 3 times a week, to build the habit. Reading from print, specifically, will discourage interrupting yourself to do other things online. Examples might be comics or graphic novels, sports biographies, entertainment magazines, or adventure series.
  2. Give audiobooks, podcasts, or radio (including internet radio) a chance. People love “The Moth” for storytelling, “Serial” as a real-life crime/suspense program, and “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” for a humorous take on current events.  Even listening to coverage of a sporting event without the visuals can increase your awareness of sentence structure, vocabulary, and the ways in which announcers describe the action so you can see it in your mind.
  3. Read a favorite section of a real newspaper—yes, go “old school.” Try a sample subscription (daily or Sunday edition) and enjoy the benefits of having a hard copy delivered to your home. Even if you just pick sports or entertainment, you’ll be more consistent and less likely to become digitally distracted than if you read the online version.
  4. Intimidated by the idea of reading classic literature? Watch the movie first. The visual images and historical context may help you work your way through the text in the future.  Read reviews on www.IMDB.com or www.rottentomatoes.com to pick worthwhile movie versions.  You can reinforce your coursework by selecting a specific historical period or country; for example, if Brit Lit is required next year, watch “Jane Eyre” on a rainy day this summer.

For Parents:

  1. Set the example: make sure your children see you reading for pleasure. Never treat pleasure reading as a “waste of time.” Protect family reading occasions, even if only for 20 minutes before or after dinner or on weekends. Encourage print sources or dedicated e-readers so no one gets digitally distracted. Don’t judge your kids’ choice of reading material, even if you find it “lowbrow.” Everyone in the family can read different books, magazines, or newspapers.
  2. Use meal- or driving time to discuss books you’ve read that might be of interest to your teen. Find book reviews of books you or they have read and discuss whether the commentaries are or aren’t justified. Car trips are also good for aural experiences like audiobooks (see above).
  3. Suggest and provide books according to your adolescent’s interests and passions, even if you’re not into them. There are many colorful anthologies, biographies, and trivia collections with reasonably short entries aimed at teens with special interests; for example, “Famous Jewish Athletes,” “Women in Science,” or “Everything There is to Know about Star Wars.” If you need help with suggestions, consult the Young Adult specialist at your local library.
  4. Be willing to try the books your adolescent likes. Read and discuss high-quality children’s or teen’s best-selling books, such as “Harry Potter,” “The Book Thief,” or “The Fault in our Stars.” But also be flexible enough to read their guilty pleasures, like a sci-fi-, mystery-, or vampire series.
  5. Watch film versions of a book with your teen or with the whole family if it is available and appropriate (see review sites above). Discuss the differences between versions.
  6. Promote positive reading environments by visiting libraries, archives, and bookstores, both retail and used. Include your teen in hosting your book club or attend a local storytelling evening. Support them in exploring teen reading programs or poetry slams.
  7. Note the reading interests of family and friends: what types of books and periodicals do they have in their homes? Ask them what they like to read, and what books influenced or helped them most in their education and careers? Why?
  8. If your teen has distanced him- or herself from you, it might be helpful to find a reading mentor. Who else could inspire your child to enjoy reading?

Young people are growing up at a time when the Internet fragments their powers of attention, and social media forces them to express themselves in fewer and fewer words. Meanwhile, higher education and most careers still require them to read, write, communicate, and analyze at a highly advanced level. The antidote to this conundrum isn’t more busyness, fragmentation, or academic pressure. It’s the chance to quench their curiosity, recognize kindred spirits, or find themselves on an unexpected path in the pages of a compelling book. Families should support the opportunities for teens to enjoy language-rich experiences more than 140 characters at a time.

Reference: Bruni, F. “Read, Kids, Read” New York Times. May 13, 2014

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