When you think about it, hoping that a 21st century middle or high school student will obsess over reading like they do. . .say. . .Tumblr or their new iPhone. . . is almost laughable. It is as anachronistic as wishing for an age before freeways or toys before plastic.
Indeed, expecting kids to deeply embrace and read books today whether for independent reading or homework is not a whole lot different than asking them to churn their own butter, carry their favorite music around in their backpack as an LP collection, use a telephone that is wired to the wall, or watch their favorite shows on a black and white tv with rabbit ears.
But really – have books jumped the shark?
Given the revolutionary scale of change for all things that make up the trappings of youth in 2013– phones, music, computing, media, and gaming to name the most obvious – it is startling how little has been done to revolutionize the experience of reading a book. Books are (and especially in schools where ebooks are almost completely non-existent) essentially unchanged in their dimension and functionality since the advent of the printing press. Better cover art and greater portability in the form of an e-book for many titles, but otherwise almost entirely the same.
Beyond the kids who are burgeoning bibliophiles by nature, books are understandably a hard sell to young people amidst the noise of much flashier, multidimensional, wildly connected and interconnected forms of entertainment. This is ironic considering the wealth and quality of contemporary literature focused on the teen market. The quality of the art is in many respects enjoying a tremendous renaissance while the medium struggles to resonate and prove its relevance with the next generation upon whose whims it will either flourish or fail.
If reluctant readers are going to discover and embrace a passion for reading, it will most likely be catalyzed in the classroom. They are, for lack of a better term, a captive audience. Their success as students is inextricably tied to their reading skills. If we want them to discover and embrace the gift of reading, we need to make the medium more relevant. Teachers must have tools that bring dimension and dynamism to the text. In an age when kids are accustomed to response times measured in nanoseconds, it makes no sense to ask students to wait until the next day or perhaps longer to know if they are progressing as readers and understanding the books in front of them.
Still grasping on to your nostalgia for the printed text?
Consider these findings from a (now practically ancient) 2010 study released by the Kaiser Family Foundation focused on media use by kids. The average young person in 2010 spent 7 hours and 38 minutes engaged in the above forms of media EACH DAY! That is 53 hours a week – more than most hard working adults spend at their job. Of that incredible investment of time, energy, and focus, only 25 minutes was spent reading.
It gets worse. Way back in 2010 – 7th–12th graders were already spending nearly 4 times as many minutes each day TEXTING than they were reading!
Our need to revolutionize the reading lives of kids is not novelty it is necessity. Regardless of the level of modernity of the medium reading will always be fundamental. There is no time to waste in making it relevant, engaging, and fun to the next generation of readers. Whether we like it or not, their academic achievement and our prosperity – both cultural and economic – depend on it.
Jason Singer is currently the CEO of Gobstopper, a dynamic new ereading platform for schools, a former founder and principal of two KIPP schools, and a passionate English teacher at his core.