Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Depressing Reading

Not that long ago I got into a spat over Harry Potter books. The argument was over the axiom that "Harry Potter books are great because they got kids to read again." There are at least three things wrong with view:
1. It presumes that kids were not reading before.
2. It presumes that the kids have continued to read after they've finished Harry Potter series.
3. Therefore, the unspoken conclusion goes - thanks to Harry Potter children's literacy rates have gone up.
On the surface, the ever-expanding Kids/Teens/Young Adult sections of your local book store seem to support this conclusion. But from where I am sitting, even this YA boom is more of a desperate attempt to recapture the Harry Potter phenomenon, rather than an indication of a massive surge of reading among the young people. And then there is this NPR article titled "What Kids Are Reading, In School And Out." Please read it.

OK, done? Or did you just read the first paragraph? Did you just scroll to the end, hoping to find the talking points? If you read it through, then you are ahead of most young people I know. "But wait, the conclusion of the article directly contradicts you! The man said 'reading leads to reading' so reading Harry Potter must have led to more reading!" Not so fast, there is no guarantee that a young person will, upon finishing a beloved series, desperately seek out a new series. And even if s/he do, it will likely be on the same reading level, not a more complex one. Thus "Hunger Games", thus "Twilight", thus "I am Number Four", etc. etc. etc. The NPR article above seems to support the conclusion that American young people are reading below expected grade level when they bother to read at all.

Lest you say "Well, it's American public education system! Of course that's the case!", the situation in Canada isn't much better. Here's the conclusions of the International Adult Literacy Survey for Canada, conducted in 1994. This stands out: "[It] is particularly disturbing that a substantial number of Canadian adults scored in the bottom two levels on all three literacy scales. Although over 20% achieved Levels 4 and 5, over 40% were rated at the lower end of the scale at Levels 1 and 2, and of these, nearly 20% were at Level 1. These adults with low literacy skills are likely to see their future economic opportunities further eroded. Canada’s overall literacy ratings were comparable to the United States; however, a high
proportion of our population achieved the lowest level of literacy in all three domains." (by the way, Singapore, Sweden and Finland are consistently the most literate countries in the world) 1994 is three years before the first Harry Potter book hit the stores. Let's suppose that in 1997, the kid reading (or more likely being read to) Harry Potter is 6-10 years old. In 2007, s/he would be 16-20 and would therefore be a potential participant in the International Adult Literacy Survey (people 16 and up are eligible). However, the next IAL survey was administered in 2003, and the next one is due either this year or the next one. However, comparing the 1994 and 2003 IAL survey, a very worrying pattern emerges. Some highlights (find the full report here):
- Nationally, 48 percent of the adult population – 12 million Canadians aged 16 and over– perform below Level 3 on the prose and document literacy scales (about 9 million or 42 percent of Canadians aged 16 to 65). Level 3 proficiency is considered to be the “desired level” of competence for coping with the increasing skill demands of the emerging knowledge and information economy.
- Overall, there has been little change in literacy performance between 1994 and 2003.
- Contrary to expectation, the report finds little improvement in literacy proficiency since 1994. The new survey shows almost nine million Canadians aged 16 to 65 (12 million if Canadians over 65 are included) score below the desirable threshold of prose literacy performance.
- The established patterns of literacy proficiency continue to prevail, with higher performance among the young and the educated.

Hey, that last point is great, right? Young people are continuing to perform higher! Not so fast. The young people growing up in 1994 scored higher that year than the older people that year. But those people who were young in 1994 grew up in time for 2003, so shouldn't their earlier successes carry over into mature adulthood? Apparently not. Huh, that's strange. What it suggests to me is that this pattern will reemerge in the 2013/2014 IALS, and will not show any marked improvement in literacy despite the young people supposedly "reading again". While we are waiting for that survey to be administered and results compiled, evaluated and revealed, we can turn our attention to ALL - Adult Literacy and Life Skills survey. The last one was in 2008, and it uses identical questionnaires, data collection and statistical methodology as IALS, so the results are pretty much comparable. You can find the full report here (scroll to pages 45-46 for the interesting stuff). You'll find Canada lagging only behind Norway and Bermuda for prose reading (so basically reading news and creative writing) and only behind Norway and Netherlands for document literacy rates. That's good news right? Nope, because unlike IALS which is administered on a truly global scale, ALL is administered only in select countries, and when stacked against other countries in the survey Canada is looking pretty good. The problem is that Norway has the lowest literacy rate among Scandinavian countries, and Netherlands isn't doing so hot compared to many of its European neighbours either.

Clearly there has been no progress on the literacy front between 1994 and 2008, Harry Potter or no. Maybe education is to blame? Perhaps, except that since the devastating findings of the 2003 IALS more money, time and effort in education has gone towards raising the reading and literacy levels than anything else, save perhaps various technology-related courses. It's not matter of mismanagement either. There are specialized qualification courses for teaching reading and literacy that many teachers now take. There are many truly talented and intelligent teachers and academics studying and working on the problem. Reading is one of the overall curriculum goals across Canada, fostering reading and literacy is priority number one in most subjects. School libraries have never looked so good. Bookstores are brimming with books for young people. Heck, there are so many books available for free through regular libraries, ebooks, on tablets and phones. So why aren't kids reading more? Didn't they read Harry Potter? Didn't they get the memo that they're supposed to love reading now?!

(OK, sorry I keep ragging on Harry Potter. It's nothing personal, it's just that this is the go-to book that people bring up when arguing that kids are reading again. Back in 1960s it was Dr. Seuss and Sesame Street. Same difference really.)

On to anecdotal evidence and to come back full circle to the NPR article. This year I was blessed with many intelligent, hard-working and genuinely curious students. Vast majority admitted that they do not read books outside of the ones they have to read for school. One student, a pretty intelligent guy, admitted that he did not read any books in the last 3 years, including the ones assigned at school - he relied on Sparknotes, Yahoo Answers, wikipedia, and movies. I have two Grade 12 students, one Grade 11 student, maybe two Grade 9 and 10 students, who I see regularly reading unassigned books for enjoyment, or asking my advice on what would be a good book to read. With one exception they are reading books that are technically below their reading level, but at least they are reading! The rest grumble. Assigning 40 pages to read over the course of a week is a huge challenge. Lord of the Flies proved very challenging to a Grade 9/10 class. Catcher in the Rye was at best skimmed-through by a Grade 11 class. Great Gatsby was challenging to a Grade 12 class. For shits and giggles, after introducing the book I divided the class in groups and asked them to paraphrase and explain in their own words the first three paragraphs of the book (yes, it's the one with the convoluted 'secrets of wild and young men' passage). They couldn't, even though it wasn't written in German or Elizabethan English. Over the last three years I've taught (not counting Shakespeare obviously): Brave New World, Of Mice and Men, The Crucible, 1984, Handmaiden's Tale, Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, Frankenstein, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Wars, Oedipus Rex, Antigone, parts of the Odyssey, Huckleberry Finn, Ender's Game, and more. With most students and most of these books I saw the same story. Skim reading at best, heavy reliance on copied notes and Internet, complaints about the book being too challenging, incomprehension of vocabulary (sometimes really frightening gaps!), insistence on constant hand-holding through the book, lack of original thoughts about the book at all. Every year (or semester as the case may be) I conduct a little survey, asking students what they've read last year, what they've read during the summer, how much they read each week, what is their favourite book, and - what did they read when they were 6-10 years old. To that last question the answer is in 90% of the cases - Harry Potter. The answers to the rest of the questions are just depressing.