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Parenting advice: How to make teenagers read a book

Parents often receive conflicting messages about teenagers and literacy: on the one hand, they don't read books, but on the other hand, they are constantly reading online. 

Educator Howard Eaton was asked, "My teenage son doesn't pick up a book on his own these days. Should I be alarmed? Is there anything I can do about it?" 

Here is his feedback: 

This is such an important question. Should I be alarmed that my teenage son doesn’t pick up a book on his own these days?

The short answer is, yes.

Based on research over the last 20 years teenagers that don’t read books are less likely to attend college, reduced language skills, experience depression more frequently then non-readers and have lower paying jobs. That is a lot to be alarmed about. Research also notes that reading fiction has significant benefits to the brain including increasing attention span, developing empathy, improving overall social cognition and enhancing reasoning ability. Reading books benefit our teenagers in so many ways.

Okay, yes, there are those who don’t read books and are successful in their careers. Research is talking about statistics and what might be a statistically significant finding. As a result, there will be those teenagers who don’t read books who will go to college/university, not experience depression and will earn a good income. I am sure there those reading this article right now and saying, “That was me as a teenager!” What the research is outlining is that the probability of that happening is less if your teenager is not reading books. So, if we are working with odds, let’s make it in our teenagers favour. Who wouldn’t want a teenager who shows good attention span, is more empathetic, socially astute, with good reasoning ability.

The problem is that many teenagers are not reading books. Sure, they could be reading more text messages, emails, Facebook updates, and Wikipedia facts, but a significant number are not reading books – whether a printed book or one downloaded on a tablet (a Kindle, iPad, or similar reading device). A study from Scotland showed that 33 out of 100 teenagers aged 15 years did not read books. In fact, 20 out of 100 said reading was a waste of time. Surprisingly, Scotland has one of the highest literacy rates in the world. A 2007 American study funded by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) found that 66 out of 100 thirteen year-olds are not daily readers. For those aged seventeen the number of non-readers doubled from 1984 to 2007.

The 2007 NEA study also found that Americans ages 15 to 24 spent on average 120 minutes a day watching TV and 7 minutes reading. The June 2009 Nielsen report on How Teens Use Media found that the typical U.S. teenager now watches three hours and 20 minutes of TV a day. They are also on their computers for 52 minutes a day. With attending school, eating meals, working, completing homework and doing chores, and engagement with media (TV and social media) what time is left for reading books for pleasure?

In Canada the trend is no different. In 2010 Grade 3 and Grade 6 students were asked whether they liked to read during a yearly standardized exam. There answers were compared to findings from 1998/1999 school year. The findings were troubling as only 50% of Grade 3 students liked to read as compared to 76% over 10 years ago. For Grade 6 students the drop was from 65% to 50%. Not surprising was the additional fact that Ontario teacher-librarians at both the elementary and secondary levels were cut back. Schools with elementary teacher-librarians were cut back from 76% to 56% from 1998 to 2010. The statistical percentile match between Grade 3 students lack of interest in reading over the last 10 years and drop in contact with an elementary teacher-librarians over the same time period is not surprising.

The other problem is adults are also reading less or can’t read at all. Are children not looking at their parents for inspiration and guidance? Currently, the estimate in Canada is that 48% have difficulty reading this sentence. That is 12,000,000 adults in Canada. Illiteracy is a significant national concern and impacts children’s interest in reading books. Adults may also be dealing with Dyslexia and/or ADHD that hinders reading ability or even interest in books. I also know that reading fluency can easily dissuade an adult from reading to their child. Slower reading fluency can be caused by difficulties with specific areas of cognitive processing. Thus, the adult can read words, but finds it frustrating to read fluently to their child.

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