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Janie B. Cheaney: Reviving a generation of readers


WORLD Radio - Janie B. Cheaney: Reviving a generation of readers

With time and intentionality, children can develop the lost skills of comprehension

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MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday March 20. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Up next: WORLD commentator Janie B. Cheaney says we know why so many students today can’t read well. What we don’t know–is whether parents and teachers will intervene before it’s too late

JANIE CHEANEY: Anyone with an ear open to the world of children’s publishing knows there’s a battle going on between concerned parents and agenda-driven book professionals. In the March 9 issue of WORLD Magazine I reported on the raft of state laws restricting school-library access to books with sexually or politically explicit themes. Of course, the education establishment, along with publishers and authors, is pushing back hard. But I’m wondering how many kids want to read those controversial books. Or how many want to read anything.

Adam Kotsko, a theologian, writer, and teacher, is also wondering. In a February Slate article, he worries about “The Loss of Things I Took for Granted”--namely, the ability of the average college student to comprehend challenging literature. Fifteen years ago, he assigned 30-page passages every week. Now, his students stumble through 10-page assignments with no real comprehension. Rather than lively classroom discussions, Kotsko takes up valuable class time establishing basic plotlines and arguments.

Even the brightest students come to his classes with no ability to understand what an author is actually saying. Students are more likely to read with preconceived ideas of what they should take away from a text, rather than what they should be putting into it. Kotsko says it’s a problem across the board, a frustration shared by every fellow academic he’s spoken to. “We are in new territory,” he says, “when even highly motivated honors students struggle to grasp the basic argument of a 20-page article.”

He singles out the usual suspects, such as those electronic devices that college students have been scrolling since they were 10 years old—before they had a chance to develop the subtle skill of reading across disciplines. He also notes the forced shutdown of schools during COVID-19 that set students back one or two years. And then there is the decline of phonics instruction, especially since the heyday of the “balanced literacy” approach from Columbia Teachers College that influenced thousands of reading professionals.

Some of these mistakes can be corrected. In time—provided we’ve learned our lesson about lockdowns—we won’t see any more students affected by years lost to a pandemic. Smart phones are here to stay but if enough parents become alarmed, their harmful effects could be moderated. And phonics is making a comeback. Whether we can resuscitate a lost generation of readers is an open question, though.

C. S. Lewis makes an important point in his lesser-known book, An Experiment in Criticism. He argues that natural readers are few. That is, the vast population that read for pleasure a few generations ago would have more readily turned to the movies or TV if those were available. Our restless brains are always looking for occupation, and the instant appeal of TikTok acts like candy for an overindulgent sweet tooth.

Correcting overindulgence takes time and intentionality. Your son or daughter may not be a natural reader, and that’s fine. But they’ll still need those subtle skills of comprehension, best learned before they ever pick up a phone. The time to learn it is now.

I’m Janie B. Cheaney.

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