Thursday, August 07, 2008

Why we don’t read as much anymore

When television was invented, critics warned it would destroy reading. Since then, computers have come along and ushered in the biggest revolution in electronic media technology through the Internet. Information becomes instantaneous, available almost in nanoseconds. More hours are spent prowling the Internet; people, old and young create their blogs where information can be exchanged and read at dizzying speeds. DVDs, MP3 players and cell phones with instant messaging capabilities became vogue. All these new hi-tech activities, some argue, have diminished literacy, destroying attention spans and ruining a precious common culture that exists only through the reading of books.

With the rapid expansion of access to and use of computers and the Internet, sales of computers to homes have also skyrocketed. Many families in the United States, according to a study made by the Kaiser Family Foundation, have two or more computers at home, with the proportion of children with home computers going up from 73% to 86% during the last five years. It is estimated that nearly a third of young people in America now have a computer in their bedroom, while the average time spent on a computer outside of school work has more than doubled.

We’re not even counting how much time our kids spend on their DVDs, MP3s or cell phones, not to mention computer games and other entertainment options available on line.

No wonder, our children are not reading books anymore. There’s no time left for books.

In 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts published Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, a detailed study showing Americans were reading fiction, poetry, drama, and books in general at significantly lower rates than 10 or 20 years ago. The decline in reading was most pronounced among young adults.

The report highlighted three very worrisome conclusions:
  • Americans are spending less time reading
  • Reading comprehension skills are eroding
  • These declines have serious civic, social, cultural, and economic implications.

Decline in literary reading was observed to be significant in a period of Internet use. Even if reading has occurred, it competes with other media like TV-watching, video computer game-playing, instant messaging, e-mailing or web surfing. This suggested less focused engagement with a text such as checking e-mail, searching for music videos on YouTube, looking for something on Google, or simply spending time on or browsing

Educators, researchers and even parents are now engaged in a passionate debate about how reading may be changing on the Internet. What does it mean to read in a digital age?

While those who believe in the potential of the Web do not deny the value of books, they argue that it is unrealistic to expect all children to read To Kill a Mockingbird or Pride and Prejudice for fun. They say that children who prefer staring at a television or pushing buttons on a game console can still benefit from reading on the Internet. Some literacy experts even say that online reading skills will help children fare better when they begin looking for digital-age jobs, prodding some Web adherents to suggest that children should also be evaluated for their proficiency on the Internet and not only for their print-reading comprehension.

Traditionalists, on the other hand, warn that digital reading is “the intellectual equivalent of empty calories...Zigzagging through a cornucopia of words, pictures, video and sounds distracts more than strengthens readers. And many youths spend most of their time on the Internet playing games or sending messages, activities that involve minimal reading at best.”

The study made by the National Endowment of the Arts has also gathered evidence showing that advance readers tend to amass personal, professional and social advantages over deficient readers. Good readers generally have more financially rewarding jobs while less advanced readers report fewer opportunities for career growth. According to the study, literary readers are more than 3 times as likely as non-readers to visit museums, attend plays or concerts, and create artworks of their own, thus concluding that good readers play a crucial role in enriching our cultural and civic life.

But proponents of the Web are not to be deterred, suggesting reading itself needs to be redefined, especially in a digital age. They say that interpreting videos or pictures may be as important a skill as analyzing a novel or a poem. Some literacy experts say that today’s children are using sound and images to create a world of ideas that are not necessarily language-oriented.

The future of reading will depend on how parents, children and educators continue to make decisions and choices in light of the expanding menu of leisure goods and activities made available by the Internet revolution. How easier it would be if we only we could all be like Groucho Marx who once said: “I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.”

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