Cepeda: Content counts as young people are reading more

By Esther Cepeda, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

Published:

 
photoEsther Cepeda

Eight years after the National Endowment for the Arts declared a national reading crisis, there's a sliver of good news.

According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, 83 percent of Americans between the ages of 16 and 29 read a book in the past year. Best of all, only slightly fewer 16- to 29-year-olds say they read for pleasure (76 percent) compared to for work or school (81 percent). And among people ages 30 and older, 81 percent read for pleasure, slightly higher than those who read to keep up with current events.

So this recent dose of reading fever is actually not limited to those in their prime years of stressing out about getting into, or graduating from, college.

Last November as I perused the 2011 Nation's Report Card on Reading, which found reading scores flat from 2009, I still noticed that slightly more fourth-graders reported reading for fun "almost every day" than they had in 2009 and the figure stood at an all-time high of 46 percent. These figures held up even among low-income students. At the time, I didn't know what to make of all these numbers. But now it looks like maybe we've got a positive trend on our hands, and frankly, it's surprising.

When I was a first-grade teacher, I got to witness the beginning of the trend of employing schoolwide reading specialists and literacy coaches. They were sorely needed because regular classroom teachers -- often in the profession because of their own love of reading -- are typically less prepared to empathize with and troubleshoot the challenges of young readers who just can't get the hang of it.

Specialists aside, I think we can also credit — or blame — the increase in pleasure reading to the sea change in the young adult book market. Blame is a strong word, but if you look at the changing philosophy about reading, then the raw numbers don't look as good as one would hope.

Fad becomes the norm

I'm as big a proponent of pleasure reading as the next person, but the education fad where it became OK to count student reading as meaningful regardless of the quality of the reading material is, at best, only a partial victory. It's been well over a decade since the idea has taken root that comic books and fan magazines are roughly on par with actual literature. The mantra was that it just didn't matter what a child was reading as long as he or she was engaged with the text.

Today the idea that all written materials are created equal is so intractable that it's really hard to even have civil conversations about what sorts of books are best for children to devour and which others may need to be approached with some caution. For instance, when Meghan Cox Gurdon wrote a 2011 column in The Wall Street Journal in which she noted that contemporary fiction for teens is filled with all manner of abuse, violence and depravity, she was practically tarred and feathered.

Something similar happened to Matt Amaral, a high school English teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area, after he wrote a column distributed by New America Media detailing his worries about feeding his predominantly Hispanic students a steady diet of Latino young adult literature rife with gang violence, alcoholism and other stereotypes of family and personal dysfunction.

Such concerns are just the tip of the iceberg of highly complex issues surrounding how to create lifelong readers. So for today, we should celebrate that more young people are reading and hopefully continuing the habit into their adult years.

Tomorrow, however, must be devoted to determining whether this pleasure reading has a measurable effect on success in school or life — or whether we need to rethink what we're encouraging our young people to read.