Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Play's the Thing

Why am I not surprised by this?

Harry Potter, James Patterson and Oprah Winfrey’s book club aside, Americans — particularly young Americans — appear to be reading less for fun, and as that happens, their reading test scores are declining. At the same time, performance in other academic disciplines like math and science is dipping for students whose access to books is limited, and employers are rating workers deficient in basic writing skills.

That is the message of a new report being released today by the National Endowment for the Arts, based on an analysis of data from about two dozen studies from the federal Education and Labor Departments and the Census Bureau as well as other academic, foundation and business surveys. After its 2004 report, “Reading at Risk,” which found that fewer than half of Americans over 18 read novels, short stories, plays or poetry, the endowment sought to collect more comprehensive data to build a picture of the role of all reading, including nonfiction.
Despite the problem of establishing the direction of causation, I am inclined to believe that it is the reduction in reading for pleasure that has caused the deterioration in reading and writing competency. It is so much easier to teach young people to do something when they get to take some ownership of and responsibility for what they are learning. Within some loose constraints regarding length and degree of difficulty, students should simply be encouraged and expected to read, with adults leading by example. As I've blogged before, force-feeding students a steady diet of stuff that doesn't interest them is a losing strategy. And, sadly, there can be a vicious cycle here: loss of interest leads to more regimentation; more regimentation further erodes interest; and on it goes.

I came across the article linked above shortly after reading this story in the Sunday paper, from which the following is an excerpt:
As Richard [Louv] notes in "Last Child in the Woods," the obesity epidemic coincides with a record-high increase in organized sports for kids. How does that correlate with the need for more outdoor play?

[Martha] Erickson: Obesity relates not only to activity level but also to the type and quantity of food we eat. That said, in organized sports, kids often have little actual playtime. But watch a group of children in a wooded area, and you'll see them running, climbing over things, then dashing over to whatever captures their attention next.

[Tedd] Mitchell: Last summer, my sons built a fort out of storage pallets and hay at our ranch. That project took them all weekend. They were like beavers, constantly moving back and forth between our barn and the woods. Sports are more about following directions to the letter. They're great for discipline -- and can have mental and physical benefits -- but they don't leave room for the imagination. Kids get bored so easily because they don't have the amount of time we did, when we were young, to just play.
Again, there could be reverse causality, but I am inclined to think that the organized sports, when they come at the expense of disorganized play, are the critical factor here. If there is no imagination involved, we don't get the full body and mind involved, and we don't get the long-term benefits.


d10 said...

I have been thinking about a different hypothesis:

For a fixed person (e.g. a dartmouth grad 50 years ago and today) reading has not changed, but because the population has changed (e.g. more immigrants who do not know English and don't read), it appears as if the average reading level is down.

Michael J. said...

Immigrants?? Really, immigrants?

Sorry, try television, and the Internet.

The study wasn't about ENGLISH reading, but about reading. Unfortunately for the xenophobic, not every "decline" in society is "caused" by immigrants. Sheesh.

Clay Spinuzzi said...

Color me skeptical. People certainly do seem to be reading long fiction less regularly, but as you point out, the causal relationship is not clear. Intuitively, it seems like extensive textual reception (reading) will lead to stronger textual production (writing) -- just as intuitively it seems like watching television in a foreign language will help you learn that language. (Yes, like Daryll Hannah in Splash.) That's been a big justification for literature courses in the 19th-21st centuries. In practice, though, it tends not to pan out that way.

To make things worse, writing isn't a generalizable skill: there's very limited transfer between different sorts of writing, since they address such very different activities. To pick one example, my students in creative writing have a much harder time picking up the technical report genre than do my software engineering students. It's not that engineering students are smarter, it's that they have learned and leveraged very different forecasting and organization skills; there are actually some pretty strong parallels between a solidly structured program and a technical report or business proposal.

The other thing that occurs to me is that large segments of teens and preteens really are engaging in, producing, and taking ownership of a vast variety and quantity of texts. It's just that those texts are on MySpace, Facebook, IM, and SMS, and are more oriented toward status and immediacy than structure and strategy; the structure and strategy emerge from the ecology of coauthored texts rather than being located in a single text. Given the continuing shift toward a knowledge work economy, which tends to value these sorts of communications, that's not necessarily a bad thing (although it tends not to show up well on formal tests). But I do worry that this shift has implications for strategic planning, critique, and similar skills vital to public discourse.

Just my two cents.

d10 said...

the immigrant part wasn't important to my point. it was to serve as an example of population shifts that could have caused this apparent trend. another example would be perhaps there are more inner-city residents now, and these people typically have less access to books and thus read less.

Rob Lawrence said...

In my personal experience it's a dedicated effort by parents that can make the difference. My wife and I made it a point to read EVERY NIGHT to our children (from the day they got home from the hospital - I was skeptical at first) until they could read on their own, then we read together with them until they were reading on their own 20 to 30 minutes each night. They are 8 and 10 now and each is a prodigious reader. It was a concerted effort to create a habit, and it has worked. I can't even guess how many books my daughter has read (hundreds, for example she read the Harry Potter series three times over). They are also active in sports and physically fit. There's no magic to this - but the effort is hard, parents must be willing to embrace the investment of time and effort or all bets are off. We share friends that have done the same with similar results.