Why does it matter what teenagers choose to read?

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Researchers are expressing concerns about the quality of material teenagers choose to read. Many young people would sooner pick-up a quintessential inanity by David Walliams than a book that is complex, challenging and educative.

Are you shocked? Are you stunned? Are you gathering your bottom jaw off the floor as your brain struggles to compute this unfathomable finding?

No, I suspect that you are not. Because adults do this all the time. Many of us would rather watch The Bachelor Meets Masterchef In A Funny House What Someone Has Battled to Build than a documentary on anything worthy and improving, or even in preference to a serious drama: “Honey, the new BBC adaptation of The Tempest is on in five minutes… but we can always watch that on catch-up. Sometime.”

So why the concern? Why does it matter what teenagers choose to read? The problem arises because we have a broken understanding of how education works.

It should not matter that teenagers choose dumb books because, through school, they should be required to read good ones. As part of the English curriculum, they should be made to study texts that they would not have discovered for themselves. Unfortunately, we are currently in the grip of a educational philosophy that privileges the idea of students making their own choices. Where we don’t give complete free-reign to kids, we dumb-down content and dress it in teenage clothing in the hope that we make it more appealing. “Please like this!” we plead. When students are not reading Walliams, they are undertaking a supposedly serious analysis of a young adult novel or they are making up raps about Shakespeare. I mean, they’re all texts, right?

It is as if teenagers’ uninformed opinions on the merits of Dickens or Austen somehow matter.

This is partly due to a simplistic theory of motivation. You don’t need to conduct a large-scale study to figure out that reading ability, reading enjoyment and the selection of more complex texts are all correlated. This leads some people to assume that if we motivate students to read more – maybe by having reading campaigns involving sports stars and the like, or perhaps by asking teachers to cast aside their dignity and wear fancy dress for world book day – they will select better books and become better readers as a result.

I have argued before that this seems unlikely. The various factors probably influence each other in a number of directions but it is likely that reading ability is something of a prerequisite for motivation. If we teach children to read then they will gain a sense of accomplishment and will be more motivated about reading in the future. This doesn’t stop at decoding. If we make teenagers read more difficult books and help them through this process by teaching key vocabulary, explaining important concepts and by asking them to write about what they have read, then they are likely to feel a sense of accomplishment too. And this may increase motivation to tackle more complex texts in future.

But what if they refuse? “My son says he will not read 1984; it’s boring.” There are a number of points to make here. Firstly, why does the child get a veto? Does this child also refuse to clean his room? What do you do about that? Secondly – and this may sound shocking – schools exist, in part, to coerce children into doing things that they are not particularly keen to do. And they have lots of mechanisms for doing this. I guess there is a point where we give up, but I would want to work pretty hard at exhausting the other options first.

As the adults, it is our job to make certain choices on behalf of children when we know these choices serve their best interests. That is what parents do, and it is the role that teachers assume when parents leave children in their care. Trivialising the curriculum is an abrogation of that responsibility. There is no problem with kids reading inconsequential books provided we make sure that they also read some proper ones.

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12 thoughts on “Why does it matter what teenagers choose to read?

  1. I’m curious as to who makes the decisions in schools regarding texts.

    I agree that the texts are very simplistic, not rich and challenging as they should be. I’ve been VERY disappointed with the choice of novels in the schools my kids have attended. I’m also stunned by how little they are required to actually read in English. It’s not even set as homework.

    One novel, of dubious quality, per year is not good enough. The students should be reading every day and it is up to the schools – not home environment – to ensure quality & quantity. This is one of my big bug bears.

    I’m really not clear what my kids are learning in English. It seems to be devoid of those elements we consider essential to English. Reading is also a habit – it needs to be done regularly – and if you have them stop reading, as seems to be the case in high school ie no requirement then they quickly lose interest. If reading/discussing literature was a requirement of passing English then there is incentive. As parents, we don’t have that. School is the place to expose them to the best that has been thought or said.

  2. I remember now that they do lots of reading strategies (boring) and writing without the skills/vocab. etc to tackle this task. They hand in drafts that are then given back with “suggestions” as to how to improve. The writing tasks seem to be very formulaic too ie must contain 4 adjective, an adverb, alliteration, simile etc. Blah. Why not expose them to good writing..

    1. Exactly. Those seven-word-minimum sentences, with obligatory insertions as you mention, ill prepare students for real writing. While we’re on the topic, the spelling adoptions that repeat the phrase “Learn to spell, and you’ll learn to read” have got it backwards. Tempe, AZ? Taught there! (Oops! No subject.)

  3. The issue too is that students often don’t read at all other than what gets assigned. There’s a variety of reasons for this, but I’d point to the MANY distractions to which they’re exposed (and those are often designed to get their attention). I’m at the point where I’m happy if they do read something, regardless of what that is.

    Sadly, some educationalists say that reading stuff on-line is still “reading” somehow, counting as much as other forms of literature.

    On the flip side, there are accusations that the way teachers assess literature creates a dislike of reading, especially when compared to the other things students can do with their time. I’m split on that—I do feel that quizzes of Shakespeare or Milton seem wrong on the surface, but I understand the pedagogical reasons for it. See https://theconversation.com/reading-teaching-in-schools-can-kill-a-love-for-books-46616

  4. Re: “As part of the English curriculum, they should be made to study texts that they would not have discovered for themselves.”

    I agree, and I’d just recommend that tall readers (in school or not) think about Sims Bishop’s Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Doors. Each reader deserves, at some point, to have her experience mirrored in a book – – especially in class but at least an independent reading. Each leader should also choose a text that serves as a window in to an experience unlike her own—with respect to socioeconomic class, race, gender, ability, etc. and hopefully, each reader Should feel so inspired by a book that she opens “sliding doors” in her life – – maybe by watching a documentary about a book’s subject, maybe by researching a nonfiction source about a book’s setting, maybe by seeking out a community service project informed by a book she read.

    Too many readers (and consumers of all media) choose works by and about people who look like them. Try what I did for 2017: read no book, watch no movie starring a white straight male protagonist. It was enlightning, and I didn’t feel like I missed out at all. Thanks for a great post!

  5. Absolutely agree. We must ensure a wide variety of ‘literature’ not just writing is experienced. There can though be many ways to allow students to respond to said works .

    I guess that is the point. Use depth of content but at times do use a variety of assessments that are assessed in a way that allows depth of knowledge – linguistic devices, themes, etc. so that students can become articulate, literate, critical thinkers and develop analytical skills so they can critique their JKRowland/Matthew Reilly personal reading at a high level, whilst still being able to enjoy the shallow narrative/cahracterisations.

    To use a film analogy – Teach Battleship Potemkin so they can appreciate, critique and enjoy The Untouchables.

  6. I don’t agree. We can’t rely on schools to turn people into experts. All the most successful mathematicians are largely self-taught. They do math textbooks outside of school of their own volition. Look at the biography of any mathematician and you’ll see this. The critical thing is cultivating interest and not forcing kids to learn things they’re not motivated to learn.

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