Between the lines: Why students don’t read

It is a problem that spans generations, its causes changing with each year that passes. Both students and faculty at the school are asking the same age-old question: why aren’t kids reading?

The problem is attributed to many dimensions of the school community and to larger society, as recognized by students and teachers.

According to a survey distributed to randomly selected homerooms, 79.8 percent of students said they liked to read while 20.2 percent said they did not.

According to English teacher Eric Colburn, part of the struggle relates to the very structure of English classes.

“The reason they’re not reading the books they’re assigned for class is they don’t really have to because you can fake in lots of ways,” said Colburn. “There are more and more study aids available online, but even when I was in school, you could still sort of fake it by asking friends what happened or listening well in class discussions.”

Like Colburn, both English Curriculum Coordinator Mary Burchenal and junior Andreas Alexandru identified the rise of technology in today’s society as a factor influencing kids not reading.

“Our students have a different relationship to text now than when many of us started our careers, at least those of us who have been in teaching for longer than five or 10 years. And we’re grappling with that,” said Burchenal. “What does that mean for us as teachers, what does that mean for the book, what is this new relationship to text? Do we fight it? Do we join it?”

For Alexandru, it was the absence of this technology that spurred his reading habits.

“In the beginning, my parents made me read often, and after that, I just continued reading on my own,” said Alexandru. “Since I also have younger siblings, I would read to them. I got to read a lot. We didn’t have TVs, so when I was bored, I just read.”

Alexandru thinks that had he not read consistently on his own, the transition to more advanced texts, such as the ones assigned in school, would have been more difficult.

Burchenal links this struggle to the change in the medium through which students read.

“They’re reading screens,” said Burchenal. “They’re jumping from place to place on the screens a lot of the time and things that are designed for websites tend to be written in a simpler, clearer, more accessible way, and that’s good. I think that it’s totally appropriate for the medium, but it has some effects.”

According to the survey, 19.4 percent of students said they preferred to read books online or on a tablet device to on paper, while 80.6 percent said they did not.

Senior Michela Moscufo thinks that this new medium detracts from the reader’s experience.

“I think the whole culture around reading has changed a lot, and I don’t think necessarily in a good way,” said Moscufo. “I really don’t like reading on a Kindle or iPad because I think that takes away a huge aspect of reading: just being able to turn the pages and actually smell the book and see the text right in front of you. It’s becoming digitized, and sure, it’s much more accessible, but I think it’s detrimental to the whole reading culture.”

According to Burchenal, technological advancement makes reading the books taught in school more difficult for students, a difficulty which Colburn said can be very defeating.

“For a lot of people, the texts are too hard and it just makes reading excruciating,” said Colburn. “People don’t like to think of themselves as non-readers. Almost every kid likes to think of themselves as a smart guy or smart girl, so there might be some self-delusion going on.”

Along with declining motivation, workload also plays a major role, according to freshman Nick Karnovsky.

“I think it’s very easy for teachers to give too much and say, ‘Oh, well it’s the same amount every day. This is an honors class, this is what you should be reading,’” said Karnovsky. “But, depending on the book, what might just be 30 pages can actually take you an hour, an hour and a half for some people, which is a real burden for some people to find that time.”

To combat this problem, the English department is taking what Burchenal called a “multi-pronged approach.” This includes possibly increasing the amount of independent reading time in classes; a reading remediation program, led by English teacher Jenee Ramos, for students who need help accessing high school-level text; and an initiative led by Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator Gary Shiffman to encourage school-wide professional development in regards to adolescent literacy.

According to the survey, 29.7 percent of students said they thought they were assigned too much reading for English class per night while 70.3 percent said they did not think so.

Colburn dreams of an independent reading course in which students are required to read for one hour every day. Karnovsky supports the idea of a focus group of parents, students, teachers and librarians to choose books that students would be more interested in reading.

According to Burchenal, the English department is currently discussing its book choices for classes and is looking into the inclusion of more non-fiction titles.

“The people in this department find so much joy in reading that it breaks our hearts when we feel that students aren’t finding joy there,” said Burchenal. “It’s possible that students may just get their joys elsewhere, but we feel that we have to at least try to show them what we’ve got from reading. I always use the quote from [William] Wordsworth in his prelude: ‘What we have loved, they will love and we will show them how.’ I think that’s the desire behind what we’re trying to do.”


Anna Parkhurst can be contacted at [email protected]