Turning teens into readers

Karen MacPherson

THE WASHINGTON POST – Many parents naturally worry about getting their teenagers to read during the summer, but the stakes may feel especially high this year, after months of “distance learning.” When it comes to teens and reading, definitions count.

Yes, surveys show that teens are reading less, a slump that begins in middle school. But many experts think the definition survey makers use is too narrow, and reflects the way we often instinctively define “reading” as reading fiction in general, and literary fiction in particular. And reading it in print, not digitally.

Today’s teens are reading, both in print and online, according to education experts, librarians and teachers. But what they are reading – horror and dystopian novels, magazine profiles of sports figures, online news articles, etc. – frequently isn’t counted in surveys as “reading.”

Although reading a news article is not the same as reading a novel or a narrative nonfiction book, experts say it isn’t helpful for adults to dismiss the reading that many teens are doing.

In their book Reading Unbound: Why Kids Need to Read What They Want – and Why We Should Let Them, adolescent literacy experts Michael W Smith and Jeffrey D Wilhelm spotlight the fact that the kids they studied had a “surprisingly rich engagement with texts that we didn’t much value.” According to Smith, a secondary education professor at Temple University, “Many were avid readers of marginalised texts.”

That’s particularly true of teen boys. As recounted in their earlier book, Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys, Smith and Wilhelm’s studies found that many teen boys are interested in reading books and other materials through which they learn something, such as the history of a favorite sport or even car manuals. They find pleasure in becoming an expert on something. (Of course, this also is true for many girls.)

“But that’s just the kind of reading that parents and teachers want kids to ‘get beyond,’” said Wilhelm, a professor at Boise State University.

Because the adults in their lives undervalue what they enjoy reading, many teens – especially boys – don’t consider themselves readers, a self-image that begins in elementary school and worsens with age.

“I teach children’s literature in an education school, so my audience is teachers,” said Laura Jimenez, a literacy education professor at Boston University Wheelock College of Education and Human Development. “It’s rare when I have a guy in class, and when I do, the guy will say, ‘I’m not really a reader.’ But they are not considering what they DO read.”

As true digital natives, teens are reading ever more online, especially news, sports and entertainment articles, as well as social media. One teen, who is a passionate reader, recently told me that “it’s much more of an effort to read a book than look on a screen.” Although reading on a screen also carries the temptation “to flip over to a video game or check your social media,” he said. “It’s almost impossible to avoid.”

So what’s the role of parents when it comes to teens and reading? Here are some tips and strategies from experts:

CHECK OUT – AND VALUE – WHAT YOUR TEENS ENJOY READING

As an adult, you may view romance novels as trash and online articles about popular entertainers as a waste of time. But try to avoid criticising the kind of reading your teen is doing. It’s crucial to let teens, who usually have heavy homework loads, choose what to read in their spare time. Jimenez, for example, has a son who loves to read news, so her family has subscriptions to several news outlets.

VIEW THE KIND OF READING YOUR TEEN ENJOYS AS A BRIDGE TO OTHER KINDS OF READING

One way parents can encourage their teens to diversify their reading is to explore different kinds of reading about the topics that interest them. And don’t count out online reading.

Smith cites his own experience as a football fan who reads everything he can: statistics, brief player profiles, long-form pieces about players and books. “I do think we make a mistake when we draw hard lines between book reading and other kinds of reading,” he said. “I read more online, and I’m a reader.”

Wilhelm offers another twist on this “focus on topics” idea that parents and teachers can use. Say your teen has to read Romeo &Juliet for school and is reluctant to do so. Why not frame Shakespeare’s play as a story about “what makes and breaks relationships”? “What ninth-grader isn’t interested in that?” Wilhelm asked.

READ ALOUD TO YOUR TEEN, OR LISTEN TO AUDIO BOOKS TOGETHER

Yes, your teen can read. But there’s a distinct pleasure in having someone read aloud to you. It also builds a “communal experience,” said Abigail Foss, an AP English teacher at Northwood High School in Silver Spring, Maryland, who says her students “love to be read to.”

A twist on this idea is listening to audiobooks together, something that is ideal for car trips but also can be carried over to an indoor picnic or even a “reading dinner.” For parents and teens, listening to audiobooks and reading a book aloud are great activities to do as a family, even if it’s for a short period each day. It also provides a topic for family discussions.

CREATE FAMILY TIME TO READ

Adults don’t always model the kind of reading behaviour they want to see in their teens. So try to decrease the time you spend on your phone with email or social media, and carve out even 20 minutes a day to read a book or magazine article while the rest of your family members also read something of their choice. Even if your teen demurs, you’ll still have given yourself a chunk of pleasure reading time.