Reading in the Contemporary World

Two of my favorite teachers, both journalism instructors, are admittedly not the typical readers. One reads only non-fiction books, newspaper and magazine articles, and online list serves while the other contends he’s “not the typical English teacher” because he only reads online articles, list serves, and blogs. Even though they both do not read the normal English teacher fare, they are both phenomenal English and journalism teachers.

How important is the reading of novels or other compositions of significant length? Must traditional readings be a part of the canon? I would say “very important” to the former and “yes” to the latter, but I am changing the way I use them.

Motoko Rich’s New York Times article Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading? explores the new reading many people, particularly students, enjoy. Online reading is on the rise. With the advent of the blog, instant messaging, e-mail, fan fiction sites, and other online-only media, students have become more and more likely to read online literature, often a non-linear and quick-hit approach to literacy.

Here are a few of the author’s findings from different studies, in which studies show that:

  • “teenagers’ scores on standardized reading tests have declined or stagnated;”
  • evidence is “linking flat or declining national reading test scores among teenagers with the slump in the proportion of adolescents who said they read for fun;”
  • in 1984 nearly 33% of teenagers read every day for fun, but now that number is down to around 20%;
  • nearly 50% of 8 to 18 year-olds use the internet daily, which is up from around 25% in 1999;
  • the “average time these children spent online on a typical day rose to one hour and 41 minutes in 2004, from 46 minutes in 1999;”
  • “nearly 90 percent of employers rated ‘reading comprehension’ as ‘very important’ for workers with bachelor’s degrees;”
  • “those who score higher on reading tests tend to earn higher incomes;”
  • “frequent novel reading…predicted better grades in English class and higher overall grade point averages;”
  • “giving home Internet access to low-income students appeared to improve standardized reading test scores and school grades;”
  • 90 percent of students missed the joke [in a study that used a fake article about a “tree octopus” to which students reacted] and deemed the site a reliable source; and
  • “more than 20,000 students” took the iSkills test [tests internet literacy] since 2006, and “only 39 percent of four-year college freshmen achieved a score that represented ‘core functional levels’ in Internet literacy.”

Evidence suggests that giving low-income students access to the internet outside of school can raise their scores since they were unlikely to read outside of school otherwise. Oftentimes with the rest of students, the evidence seems to suggest their scores lag when reading the internet more exclusively. What is a parent or teacher to do?

I would advocate two things: teaching students how to use the internet effectively and to include non-traditional readings in class.

One problem I’ve noticed with my students is their inability to discern whether or not a website is reliable. They often view an editorial with the same eyes as an objectively reported article, and they also struggle determining the credentials of a site’s author. While I believe Wikipedia is an excellent starter site, I do not allow my students to cite it; they must locate other reliable (usually academic) sources for use in my class. Plus, I force them to explain how they know the cited sources are reliable. Explaining their thinking (the metacognition) is an excellent way for students to understand their reasons for doing, or not doing, something. We look at many sites on the internet together to learn how to determine validity and reliability.

Also, students are not often taught how to use the internet responsibly at home (much like iPods, cell phones, and other devices). In class we also have to discuss e-mail etiquette, instant messaging protocols, audience recognition, and more. It does take some time but is well worth the efforts.

One new aspect to my teaching is the inclusion of non-traditional texts. I allow my students to use comics, graphic novels, some fan fiction, movies, television programs, anime, manga, and more. How I do this is that we begin with a theme or motif in the traditional literature. For example, the idea of the “star-crossed lovers” in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is an easily accessible one. As an option of a final project, the students could find examples of the tragically fated lovers in other literature.

When my mythology class studied the tale of “Pygmalion and Galatea” (where the sculptor falls in love with his creation), one assignment they had was to locate this tale in other pieces of literature. They found the following movies and plays:

  • Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw,
  • My Fair Lady starring Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn,
  • Can’t Buy Me Love starring Patrick Dempsey,
  • Mannequin starring Andrew McCarthy and Kim Cattral, and
  • She’s All That starring Freddie Prinze, Jr., and Rachael Leigh Cook.

The kids found other texts as well, but these illustrate how the students can identify modern day relevances and see how the classical archetypes and motifs are used today. If we can entice students to find the relevance in literature (see my two posts on this topic: relevance and an example), then maybe we can help the students raise their reading levels while still allowing them to access what they want in addition to what we want.

My main concern with students only or primarily reading online fan fiction, blogs, and the like is that the grammar, punctuation, and spellings are often so awful that the kids repeat these same errors in their writings or use text messaging language in their writings. I know that even when I read the students’ papers and words are consistently misspelled, I start to wonder if I’m reading the words incorrectly or all of the students are struggling with the spelling of those words. It almost begins to look correct.

In general, however, I actually encourage my students to read anything, read whatever they desire as long as they are reading. I definitely have my preferences for what they read, but I do not want to halt their progress at all. So far, I have been able to entice the students to read the literature for my classes, and if this requires me being flexible enough to incorporate their interests, so be it.

5 thoughts on “Reading in the Contemporary World

  1. Pingback: » Reading in the Contemporary World

  2. Tammy Gillmore

    Do you not think that we are in the midst of a literary revolution? We can’t teach as we’ve always taught, for our students can’t afford to only receive how we once taught. Right? To keep up with the 21st century, we have to teach as you suggest…more genres, more contempory texts.

    Yet that old school in me says that we have an obligation to educate…to show our students the evolution of literature/writing by exposing them to “traditional texts,” just as you do as they see themes echoed through time.

    Thanks…I appreciate your perspective!

  3. Jim Van Pelt

    Hi, Doc. I was going to read your whole article, but it was too long.

    Whoops! I was channeling my inner teenager for a second *g*.

    You raise a lot of interesting issues here. I’ve been arguing for several years that our A.P. Lit teachers are over-emphasizing the longer works (novels and plays) at the expense of poetry, essays and short stories. Your evidence here suggests what most of us already know, though, that reading longer works has a benefit too.

    Finding the right balance for those advanced kids is a challenge. I think the balance may be different for the struggling ones, though. One solution won’t fit them all.

  4. Pingback: What is an Acceptable Graduation Rate? « The Doc Is In

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