If teens aren’t reading, it might be what and how we ask them to read

There are two possible reactions to a new study from San Diego State University showing that only 2 percent of teenagers regularly read a newspaper and a third have not read a book for pleasure in the past year.

One is to blame the kids. We all know that kids these days don’t seem to be reading books as much as they could since they have so many pictures and videos on their smartphones to distract them.

{mosads}The other reaction is to focus on the traditional media and ask whether it is relevant to kids today. Maybe they are not reading newspapers because newspapers aren’t talking to them in a language they understand.


I’ve been reading newspapers since the 1960s and, in many ways, they look and feel the same. You have the lead (spelled “lede” in the trade) to hook the reader, the nut graph to explain why the story is important, some quotes for color, some background for context, and a kicker at the end. Who has time for all that?

Today, kids get their news from social media and they often prefer it in the words of their friends and their cultural heroes. Why believe some nameless, faceless reporter on issues of sexual harassment when you can get it directly from Lady Gaga?

Why listen to some old white guy explain racism when you can get it directly from young people of color who have experienced injustice? Want to read about life on the farm? Find a farmer-blogger. Instead of reading one quote from President Obama, selected by a journalist, you can listen to a whole podcast.

I started my career in journalism in 1982 on a manual typewriter. Within a few years, we graduated to word processors and from there to computers. Today, I run a digital media company that is all about elevating the voices of everyday people to put them on a par with the influencers: politicians, experts, academics and, yes, journalists.

Everyone’s opinion counts. Media have never been closer to democracy than today, even as the industry is flooded with bias, dogma and outright deceit.

And the kids get it. They understand there is a lot of fake news out there, which is why traditional media platforms still have the most credibility. According to a Pew Research Center survey, local news is trusted more than national news, and both are trusted more than “friends, family and acquaintances” and much more than “social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.”

So, the fact that young people are not reading newspapers isn’t a crisis. They’re just getting access through different channels. Today, they can consume 100 headlines from around the world in minutes and decide what to read. For their parents, that was impossible; they read what was put in front of them in their local newspaper.

The second big finding of the study is that a third of young people have not read a book for pleasure. Alarming as that might sound, it means that two-thirds of teens have read at least one book for pleasure last year, which is higher than I would have guessed. It’s worth noting that “leisure reading” is down among all age groups, according to one analysis.

The study doesn’t tell us what kind of books young people are reading, but you can scan the New York Times Young Adult Bestseller List and you will find that four of the top 10 books are by an author named John Green. He’s a 41-year-old Indianapolis native who built a following on YouTube and now is one of the most influential authors in the world. There’s also the Harry Potter phenomenon, which single-handedly changed children’s publishing.

Either way, the question for the education sector is, should we keep asking kids to read the same books that we read, such as “Catcher in the Rye,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Of Mice and Men”? Do we mix it up and bring in more popular, young fiction writers to prompt kids to put down their phones and pick up a book?  

Thankfully, teachers have the answer. A few years ago, the Guardian asked a number of them how to get kids to read for pleasure and they offered a host of tips that mostly boiled down to this: keep it fun.

Peter Cunningham is the executive director of Education Post, a national network of education advocates, and a former assistant secretary of education in the Obama administration (2009-2012).

Tags Alternative education Communication Digital media Literature Reading Social media

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