Is the English Curriculum Killing Kids’ Love of Reading?

It’s official: teens are abandoning reading for pleasure

That’s what a recent roundup of studies by Common Sense Media reports. According to the data gathered by the not-for-profit organization, almost half of 17-year olds say they’re lucky to pick up a book for their reading pleasure in the course of the entire year. Although the cited studies do not claim any direct correlation between teen reading decline and the uptake of digital technologies over the last decade or more, the connection has been drawn. After all, there is now so much more vying for young people’s attention, especially in the digital and online realm, that the connection between low rates of reading and high rates of e-entertainment is inevitable.
In part, I agree. As a teacher and parent I can see that the computer and iPad have a pull the humble, non-interactive bookshelf can’t compete with. But I wonder if there might be something else at play – like the foundations we’re laying in middle and high school, foundations that may well be undermining rather than fostering our children’s development as life-long readers.
Dare I say it? I’m talking about the prescribed texts we make our students read in the English curriculum.
Do I need to duck? Anyone throwing anything yet?

Just hear me out.

In early April, author Keith Cronin posted a thought provoking piece titled How to Make Somebody Hate Reading over on the literary blog Writer Unboxed. Speaking from both a writer’s as well as a parent’s point of view, Cronin argues that the pro-classics biased American high school English curricula is rapidly turning kids off reading and that, in their attempt to teach kids to appreciate literature, schools are killing their enjoyment of it. Wouldn’t it stand to reason that we should aim to have kids first enjoy what they read, Cronin argues, which then may lead them to take an interest in deeper literary analysis and harder to tackle works? Lord Voldemort before Lord of the Flies anyone?

Killing Reading
Cronin isn’t proposing we abandon studying the ‘great’ and ‘important’ texts in our canon, but in his opinion, “anything that gets kids reading is good.” And with the recent research results released by Common Sense Media, I couldn’t agree more.
The harsh reality is, in today’s technology saturated environment, there are many more things vying for our kids’ attention than there were even a decade ago. Reading is already behind the eight ball. If the only experience of it our children have is negative because of the school English curriculum, then it’s no surprise we are producing droves of adult non-readers.

Like Cronin, I’m not suggesting we ditch Dickens. I have an English teaching background and know the value of delving deeper into a challenging text. There is great satisfaction in unearthing and grappling with the many complex layers a well written novel can offer. But just like we would never expect our students to solve lengthy calculus problems early on in their mathematical learning journey, we might want to avoid teaching literary analysis using hundred year old texts kids will struggle to see the relevance of. There is a wealth of well-written, relevant, modern Young Adult literature that allows for plenty of engaging in-depth study.
So where do we stand? Is Australia following in America’s footsteps? Are we already there? What is your school’s English department doing to fire up our kids’ love of reading? I’d rather you weigh in on the argument than throw something.