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Teens not reading? Why I am not concerned.

Let me play the devil's advocate for just a moment. While I hear a collective sigh or shudder go from the ranks of librarians and teachers around the world on discovering research that shows teens are reading less, I always wonder if we really need to spend energy worrying about this.

Common Sense Media issued a report in May that shows:

  • Reading rates have dropped precipitously among adolescents
    • 53% of 9-year-olds vs.. 17% of 17-year-olds are daily readers
    • The proportion who "never" or "hardly ever" read has tripled since 1984. A third of 13-year-olds and 45% of 17-year-olds say they've read for pleasure one to two times a year, if that
  • Reading achievement among older teens has stagnated
    • Reading scores of fourth- and eighth-graders have improved, but those of 12th-graders haven't changed in 30 years
  • There's a persistent gap in reading scores between white, black, and Latino kids
    • 18% black and 20% Latino fourth-graders are rated as "proficient" in reading compared to 46% of white kids at that age (this gap has been relatively unchanged over two decades)
  • There's also a gender gap in reading across ages
    • Girls read 10 minutes more per day than boys on average
  • More girls are rated as "proficient" in reading than boys, by 12 percentage points

As a person who not only is always reading a book or two, but is nervous when he doesn't have a least a couple waiting in the wings, these numbers do look startling. However I also recognize that my view of reading and its value are very much a result of my own biases. Especially when it comes to reading as a cultural or recreational pursuit.

I would argue (and I have my librarian hat on here) we need to be more discriminating when making statements about reading, especially by teens. Some questions I ask myself:

1. Is any kind of reading by adolescents always good? Is reading itself a prima facie good, especially for already proficient readers? Like G. Robert Carlson and Stephen Krashen, I do believe any kind of reading builds reading skills, but what about kids who already read well? How is reading a crappy novel any less a time-waster than watching a crappy movie or playing a mindless video game?

2. Are there constructive things teens are doing that may be better than reading? I wonder what kids are doing with the time they previously spent reading. The adult knee-jerk reaction is that they are texting, playing games, or watching video.  But is it as likely that they are writing, making movies, coding, or watching TedTalks? What if they were exercising, playing sports, participating in scouting, or working? I have no evidence this is the case, but I don't remember seeing much evidence that reading is simply being replaced by mind-numbing activities either.

3. If we are encouraging reading because it allows young adults to practice important skills, what skills are those exactly? Just how proficient a "reader" does one need to be in order to be a fully engaged citizen today? Newspapers and magazines are written at about an 8th grade reading level. YouTube has virtually replaced how-to manuals. Critical reading for bias and factual accuracy has grown in importance with the radical politicizing of the press, but does recreational reading make one a more critical reader?

4. Is reading "great literature" a cultural artifact that will be done by a minority of connoisseurs, similar in appeal to those who attend opera today? I suspect that reading classic literature has already become a pastime of a rather small group of "cultural elites." Who actually reads Chaucer or Shakespeare or Austin or Melville or Hemingway or any poet? I don't hear a great outcry that students are spending less time listening to classical music or watching ballet. Yet we fuss about students reading less with the assumption being that they are reading less quality literature or significant non-fiction. (See point number 1 above.)

Given the ubiquity of smart phones and tablets and whatever, is it any wonder that time spent reading by teens has tanked - especially when we in education make reading work rather than pleasure by insisting on trotting out Red Badge of Courage and Great Expectations as a required to considered an educated human being. (See 4 Ways High School Makes You Hate Reading.) Heck, I spend less time reading (and more time writing, viewing, playing, Tweeting, blogging, etc.) and I like to read.

Worry-warts, get over it. Kids may be reading less, but it doesn't signal the end of civilization as we know it. Kids playing smart video games just may be an improvement over kids reading dumb books. 

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BFTP: The PLN Bill of Rights

"The makers of the Constitution conferred the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by all civilized men—the right to be let alone." - JUSTICE LOUIS D. BRANDEIS

Does your PLN ever seem overwhelming? Too many tweets, blogposts, e-newsletters, webinars ... you name it. It does for me and I sense that others may be feel overwhelmed as well.  Darren Draper in a column on Twitter1 says:

I guess my biggest complaint/worry about Twitter (and every other piece of abused technology out there) is that in our modern and extremely complex world, it’s become far too easy to lose sight of what’s really important in life. ...  ALL of these social media tools can be an incredible time suck, and if we don't keep them in check, there's a good chance we'll miss out on many things in life that are simply better than whatever we might get from Twitter (and Facebook, and even bacon).

I guess it is cold comfort to know I am not alone in feeling that one's PLN can feel like a burden as much as a booster at times. I've always appreciated Jeff Utecht's Stages of PLN Adoption. But I wonder how well we "do" Stage 4: Perspective that leads to:

Stage 5 Balance: Try and find that balance between learning and living. Understanding that you can not know it all, and begin to understand that you can rely on your network to learn and store knowledge for you. A sense of calm begins as you understand that you can learn when you need to learn and you do not need to know it all right now.

Are we in need of a Bill of Rights for PLN participants to help relieve some guilt and stress for the occasional need for a break - or even extreme deceleration? Here's a first stab at it...

Personal Learning Network Member Bill of Rights and Responsibilities

  1. I have the right not to be social 24/7 - either online or in person.
  2. I have the right to make time for reflection and the responsibility to do so.
  3. I have the right to use only the tools that suit my learning style.
  4. I have the right to stop using a tool when it is no longer useful.
  5. I have the right to not be on the cutting edge all the time or feel I need to always know all there is to know.
  6. I have the right to choose those with whom I learn in my personal learning network and the responsibility to learn from those with whom I don't always agree.
  7. I have the right and responsibility to disagree and the responsibility to do it professionally.
  8. I have the responsibility to become familiar with a tool before sharing it with others.
  9. I have the responsibility to share my knowledge with others in my network.
  10. I have the right and responsibility to not let online activities keep me from my friends, my family, my workplace, or my community.

That's it. No more beating myself up for punching that "Mark All as Read" button in my RSS feed!

Add your rights and responsibilities of PLN members...

1. Darren, if you're reading this and can provide me a link to the column, I'll add it to the post.

A weekend Blue Skunk "feature" will be a revision of an old post. I'm calling this BFTP: Blast from the Past. Original post: April 24, 2009


Head for the Edge columns 2013-14 online

Each summer I share online my Head for the Edge columns published in Library Media Connection. The titles with links are below:

If you don't subscribe to Library Media Connection, you should. It, along with Teacher-Librarian and School Library Journal, are the must-reads for progressive school library media specialists.  

Also, my HFE columns from 1995-2009, updated and edited, can be found in my book School Libraries Head for the Edge. Buy it and I might be able to afford a nicer nursing home one day. Thank you.

You can find all the columns I've written on my website <>

Remember, all my writing has been approved by the FDA as a non-addictive sleep aid.

Happy 4th of July!