America’s Declining Literacy Rates and the Curse of Technology

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I’m embarrassed to admit it, but my daughter figured out how to use an iPad before she learned how to properly grip a pencil.  She preferred “flipping” the colorfully animated “pages” by swiping the screen rather than turning stiff cardboard or the tear-prone, fragile pages of a picture book.  Sadly, I’m mostly to blame: one of the few ways to get her to play by herself while Daddy finishes up a project on his work-issued laptop and Mommy reads her textbooks was to show her an e-book version of the three little pigs or play the alphabet song on YouTube.

I knew something had to changed when my daughter turned three.  We were walking around the mall when we saw that a book store had put up a huge display of their e-book reader on the glass front.  I was shocked when my daughter ran up to the display and started to swipe her fingers across the glass, wondering why the screen wasn’t changing.

I was an avid reader when I was younger, spending most of my after-school afternoons in the public library with my sister.  My sister and I read almost everything in the children and young adults section, exploring the jungle and the magical world of animals in Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, imaging a world of chocolate and candy delights and despising the nasty old farmer’s plots to exterminate a family of foxes in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Fantastic Mr. Fox, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Little Men, and my all-time favorite story of an optimistic, fun-loving, supernaturally strong girl in Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking.  My parents still have many of my favorite hardbacks on their book shelves, and whenever I visit them, I secretly enjoy a quiet afternoon reading these silly, yet endearing stories of my childhood.  I had always dreamed of passing on these yellowed pages to my children, reading these stories to them at bedtime, giggling and using our imaginations to picture floating glass elevators and girls carrying their horses to the circus.

Unfortunately, I’m afraid that imagination is no longer really necessary in my daughter’s time.  There are movie versions of almost every children’s story or at least in the storybook apps.  The immediate satisfaction of a swipe or tap of the screen can’t be satisfied quickly enough through twenty pages of a book.  When I read books to my daughter at night, she doesn’t want to stay on one page and listen to the words.  She wants to flip ahead and see what the next page has, and she’s generally disappointed that the pictures don’t move.

A Reuters article brought to my attention a report published by San Francisco-based nonprofit Common Sense Media, which focuses on the effects of media and technology on children: “American children still spend part of their days reading, [but] they are spending less time doing it for pleasure than decades ago, with significant gaps in proficiency.”  The report tentatively linking the drop in literacy to the lack of parents modeling “good behavior” by reading for pleasure themselves.  My husband and I are guilty of this ourselves, and unfortunately, society and work doesn’t really help us either.  Reading is mostly work or school related reading, but almost never for pleasure.  In fact, even the quick guilty pleasure of reading in the bathroom has been taken over by untimely, urgent work emails.  

Most children can flip through picture books in under a minute, and to distract them for at least half an hour, one must have an arsenal of 30+ books ready for the ever-bored child.  And if the child is like my daughter, and wants Mommy to read the book with her, books don’t seem like a good idea when Mommy really needs to finish the last 10 pages of dense reading for tomorrow’s class and Daddy is too busy with his own work to help out.  Hence, *sigh* the iPad and YouTube.

Now that she’s old enough to start reading, she spends more time with books, trying to figure out the letter combinations and getting frustrated when none of it makes sense, “Mommy, what is tuh-huh-eh?”  THE.  It’s a slow process.  Still, I’m just glad she is willing forget the advances in technology to sit with a good old fashioned book open on her lap.

(If you have any suggestions, I’d love to from you!)



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