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.