Reading

Students who don’t read much can’t read well

According to results from the Scholastic Aptitude Test, a college entrance exam, U.S. students have poorer reading skills than they have at any time since 1972.

At any rate, they have poorer reading scores than at any time during that period. Although this year’s average score is only one point lower than last year’s, it’s 34 points lower than 1972’s. The Washington Post’s headline said, “SAT reading scores hit four-decade low.”

The Post quoted the president of College Board, which is responsible for the SAT: “Our nation’s future depends on the strength of our educational system.”

That’s inarguable and certainly relevant; the question is just how relevant.

Students learn best when they understand why they should, and what they most want to be able to read doesn’t follow the same rules as the SAT. They can read the texts on their cell phones just fine, and they can navigate the Internet ably. Neither medium sets high standards for spelling, grammar and punctuation.

Yes, they read books, when they must, but very few young people spend as much time reading books as they do reading materials that don’t help improve their reading proficiency.

That concern isn’t new. In past generations, parents worried about television and comic books (whose new generation is called “graphic novels”). One difference may be that this generation’s parents, on average, are not as literate as their predecessors. Fewer of them read as well or speak as formally as adults did in the past. They are less able to serve as literacy role models and less able to provide homework assistance. Today’s parents also are less likely to limit time spent in electronic recreation. The College Board acknowledges that a broader pool of students than ever before is taking college entrance tests, and many of them, if successful, will be first-generation college students.

Young people today truly may need to read less to navigate the world in which they find themselves right now. What doesn’t follow, though, is the suggestion that they won’t need to read as well to thrive in the future. During the 40-some years they will spend in the workforce, they will need to adapt to changes that currently are unimaginable, and a great deal of that adaptation must take place using their own initiative. They will need to acquire information and process it logically. Language — even a language as messy and exception-laden as English — is the mechanism for accomplishing that. Complex ideas require complex communications, and no one can claim that the world is growing less complex.

The literacy numbers no doubt will be used to criticize schools and teachers, and that’s fair enough: Their job is to teach the students they have, regardless of their deficits.

More of the solution, though, is likely to be found at home. Here’s a challenge for parents: Spend as much this year on books for your children as you spend on cell phones and Internet service. Encourage them to spend as much time reading as surfing and texting; encourage them by turning off your own electronics and reading beside them.

That has to be worth a point in the SAT average, and much more in the success of this generation’s students.