Those who make a habit of reading, whether online or in printed form, might assume that illiteracy is a problem relegated to at-risk youth. But in this digital age, even the affluent and well-educated have lost ground, students in particular. Accustomed to communicating via text message and short-form video, today’s students have demonstrated a decline in attention span, reading comprehension, and writing ability.
Concerned about the addictive nature of smartphones, tablets, and smartwatches, the French government banned the devices in schools for children younger than 16. Schools often encourage parents to realize that all technology is a tool, and the goal is to have your child using these various devices as tools when they are adults. The practice of casting technology at unformed brains before they are capable of controlling its capabilities can be destructive.
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, eighth graders’ reading comprehension scores dropped dramatically in recent years. Jean Twenge, Ph.D., author of the book iGen: Why Today’s Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, notes than in the late 1970s, the majority of teens read a book or magazine nearly every day, but by 2015, only 16 percent did. A professor of psychology, Twenge coined the term “iGen” to label children born 1995 or later, around the advent of the Internet. She notes that the majority of Americans began to use smartphones around 2011-12.
“Perhaps this move away from print is innocuous, especially if teens are still keeping up their academic skills,” Twenge writes in her book. “But they are not: SAT scores have slid since the mid-2000s, especially in writing (a 13-point decline since 2006) and critical reading (a 13-point decline since 2005).” Several students Twenge interviewed said they liked to spend their free time playing video games, and those who do read often prefer books like Harry Potter.
One Midlands high school English teacher tends to resent books like the Harry Potter series, because in high school, some students seem to resist reading books that might not have the same kind of plot or level of suspense as the books they found so fascinating in middle school. This teacher once taught seminal texts like Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick to advanced sophomores. But about a decade ago, it became apparent that many students found the assignment burdensome to the point of being ineffective.
“There were just constant complaints,” this teacher explains. “I would read passages aloud and would pause to ask what a phrase meant, or sometimes even an individual word, and not words where he’s using archaic, biblical language, but words that would be in use today — polysyllabic words that were crucial to the understanding of the passage. I would ask for definitions in class, and no one could tell me what the word meant, which meant that they didn’t understand the sentence, which meant that they didn’t understand the passage.”
By the time parents recognize that there are deficiencies in their teens, it’s too late. Most teachers agree that children will rise to the bar that you set for them. Exposing them to enduring, classic works when they are young is a good place to start.
In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell wrote, “Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly …”
Twenge (author of iGen) and colleagues Keith Campbell and Ryne A. Sherman in their journal article, “Declines in vocabulary among American adults within levels of educational attainment,” drew data from the General Social Survey. Nearly 30,000 American participants answered multiple-choice questions about the definitions of 10 specific words. The research demonstrates a loss of vocabulary over time, regardless of level of education; in fact, the largest deficits occurred among people with a bachelor’s or graduate degree.
Researchers acknowledge the Flynn effect, a widely accepted phenomenon suggesting that intelligence has substantially increased since the early 1930s (about three IQ points per decade), likely due to societal advances in nutrition, healthcare, and education. So, why would vocabulary decline? Twenge stands by her simple answer: Kids are reading less.
The most recent edition of the Oxford English Dictionary contains 171,476 words, and the average American knows about 42,000 words by age 20 and 48,000 by age 60. That means we use only 25 percent of the words available to us.
Studying Latin — before World War I, all educated people could read Latin — has benefits extending far beyond vocabulary and grammar. Latin also has a positive effect on brain development. Derek T. Muller, a law professor at Pepperdine University, analyzed LSAT scores according to college majors and found that classics majors had both the highest LSAT scores and the highest grade-point averages.
Writing, likewise, should not become a lost art. Canadian psychology professor Jordan B. Peterson, Ph.D., responding to a question from a college student in Amsterdam about how to express opinions publicly, said, “Learn to write. I’m dead serious about that because writing is formalized thinking.” Peterson goes on to explain that writing is designed to solve a problem, and the best way to approach it is to investigate, mainly through reading as much material as possible on a chosen subject. The key (and the hardest part) is to synthesize the information, choosing what points support an argument, reconciling any contradictions, and organizing thoughts in a coherent, elegant manner.
Peterson advises students to read and write every day. He says, “Hone your words. They’re the most powerful thing about you, bar none. If you’re an effective speaker and communicator, you have all the authority and confidence that there is.”
Ways to Help Your Children Become More Literate
Read books for pleasure and for edification. If young people read books that their parents read in adolescence, they can have conversations about them together. Even the shared reading of contemporary novels can spark lively discussions that are fun for the whole family, and books like Harry Potter can serve as a gateway for introducing a larger body of works — references to Greek mythology are numerous throughout the series, and most of the spells are based in Latin.
Encourage memorization of nursery rhymes, poetry, Bible verses, or songs. Train the memory whenever possible. The amazing potential of the human memory has less to do with IQ than how time is spent.
Build vocabulary at home. Before hitting the little thesaurus icon on your computer screen, try asking the nearest person, “What’s another word for…?” Talk about the etymology of words at the dinner table or in the car. It is a great way to discover what your children already know, as well as an easy way to fill in any gaps in their knowledge.
Write letters to your children and teach them to write notes themselves. Even when their primary means of written communication is electronic, children need to have the art of letter writing modeled for them. They will undoubtedly keep the letters and read them again and again.
Model the habit of putting your smartphone down. When people are present, make them a priority over the distraction of a screen — this applies to everything from the smallest smartwatch to the largest television.
Establish limits on screen time. Especially if the addictive nature of electronic communication interferes with music practice, athletic activities, or chores (which are important to child development), minimize the distraction.
Be intentional about attention span. The instant gratification that comes with smartphones has made it difficult for kids to focus on one thing for any sustained length of time. Paying attention is a skill that kids can practice at home or at school.
Expect the best from your children. They will rise to the occasion and adopt the same standard for themselves.