Risky Business

The recent report entitled “Reading at Risk” revealed that, for the first time in modern history, less than half of the adult population of the United States reads literature – a trend that reflects a decline in other sorts of reading as well. The study, by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), pointed out that these trends don’t merely signify lower profits for Amazon.com.

“More than reading is at stake,” noted NEA Chairman Dana Gioia. “As this report unambiguously demonstrates, readers play a more active and involved role in their communities. The decline of reading, therefore, parallels a larger retreat from participation in civic and cultural life. The long-term implications of this study not only affect literature but all the arts – as well as social activities such as volunteerism, philanthropy and even political engagement.”

A colleague of mine observed that the report’s key findings were “shocking but not surprising.” I agree. The shocking part lies in the serious and far-reaching ramifications of the study; the not surprising part stems from our knowledge that these trends are rooted in experiences that take place during childhood and adolescence. Learning how to read and, perhaps more importantly, learning to read for pleasure are important youth development milestones. Without intervention, however, many young people are likely to achieve neither.

While it is generally accepted that schools carry the major responsibility for teaching children how to read, there is no such agreement on who is responsible for promoting the love of reading. Many parents bestow this gift, through modeling and encouragement. And many schools facilitate a love of reading through participatory and highly engaging classroom activities and well-designed homework assignments. But I would argue that in addition to support offered by families and schools, children need the benefit of opportunities that youth development agencies and public libraries are best positioned to offer, preferably as partners.

A solid body of research evidence indicates that reading for pleasure contributes to children’s school success. “Reading at Risk” makes the case that leisure reading is correlated with career advancement and civic competence in adulthood. Given these short- and long-term outcomes, how can youth workers facilitate children’s enjoyment of reading? Here are a few strategies:

• Use targeted programs: KidzLit and Foundations are two examples of excellent literacy enrichment programs developed for use during out-of-school time. Both inspire children to practice their reading, writing and speaking skills. KidzLit uses selected children’s literature to teach pro-social values, while encouraging children to read for pleasure and to discuss their opinions and ideas with peers and trained adults. Both programs are grounded in solid research, easy to use, highly adaptable and extremely popular with children.

• Create your own programs: This summer, a school-based Children’s Aid Society program in New York City organized its day camp around Dr. Seuss. Called “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”, the seven-week camp program focused on a different Dr. Seuss book each week. Children read all the books or had the books read to them, delved into related arts and gardening projects (imagine the significance of the Lorax after they planted the seeds) and took related weekly field trips to such places as the African Burial Ground, Safety City and the Children’s Museum of Manhattan.

• Team up with public libraries: Make sure all the children you work with have library cards. Get to know your neighborhood librarians and explore how they can add value to your organization, perhaps by providing summer reading lists, convening book clubs, organizing cross-age “book buddies” programs and offering children recognition and incentives for reading books.

• Lead by example: Make sure your organization has quiet places for children to read. Ask kids what they are reading and what they think about the ideas in the books. And make your own reading visible by, for example, talking about a book you enjoyed or the one you’re reading now.

I think the business at hand is to decide: Do we stand by and watch our kids max out on TV, video games and mall arcades? Or is that a risk our society cannot afford to take?

Jane Quinn is assistant executive director for community schools at the Children’s Aid Society in New York City. Contact: janeq@childrensaidsociety.org.


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