Coaxing our kids to read for fun

May 13, 2014

Back in the 1950s, assorted moralists and do-gooders engaged in vigorous hand-wringing over comic books. They believed the tales of crime-fighting, derring-do and adventure could corrupt the minds of young people, and that the stories spun by DC and Marvel were packed with hidden subtexts – Batman and Robin were gay! Gadzooks!

From a half-century remove, the comic books that provoked those knitted brows seem pretty benign, particularly in comparison to the video games that are fixtures in our living rooms and the untamed frontier that is the World Wide Web. And the busybodies of the Eisenhower era probably never could have imagined a day when they would have to coax kids to read comic books, or anything else, for fun.

But a report released Sunday by the advocacy group Common Sense Media found that the number of young people who read books or magazines that aren’t part of classroom assignments has declined appreciably. In 1984, according to the study, the number of 13-year-olds who said they never or hardly ever read for fun stood at 8 percent. In the same year, it was 9 percent for 17-year-olds. Now, the numbers are 22 percent for 13-year-olds and 27 percent for 17-year-olds.

Thirty years ago, 64 percent of teens said they read often. In 2012, by contrast, just 19 percent did.

James Steyer, the founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, said the report’s findings were “a cause for genuine concern. As a father of four and an educator, I think reading is so essential to kids’ academic success and well-being.”

There are some obvious culprits for the decline in reading. Young people are distracted by smartphones, tablets, computers and the whole array of technological gadgets that bewitch, bother and bewilder their adult counterparts. And they are also desperately overscheduled, particularly the ambitious cohort angling to get into the best colleges and universities. Time that could be whiled away with a good book is now devoted to sports, music lessons, volunteer or extracurricular activities, tutoring or other endeavors that might impress admissions officers or boost SAT or ACT scores.

But reading for pleasure can help young people in their academic endeavors and later on in life. Our reading proficiency scores could certainly stand some improvement – the reading proficiency for fourth-graders and eighth-graders in the United States stands at about 30 percent. In overall reading proficiency, this country has frequently been bested by the likes of South Korea, Finland, New Zealand and Liechtenstein. This not only hurts our cultural and literary life but also our long-term economic competitiveness.

There are some solutions, however. Schools can put some of the emphasis on reading again that has been lost in the scramble to boost math and science scores. Limiting the amount of screen time would also be helpful. But parents can play a part, and perhaps the most vital one, simply by reading for pleasure themselves, whether it’s a magazine, a newspaper like this one or the latest best-seller from John Grisham or Stephen King. In doing so, they set an example their children will more than likely follow.

Let them indulge unabashedly in the “Harry Potter” and “Hunger Games” books. Give them the time and space to do so.

And there’s nothing wrong with comic books, either.



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