Distractions of Modern Life at Key Ages
Are Cited for Drop in Student Literacy
By Joan E. Rigdon and Alecia Swasy
The Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 1990, Dow Jones & Co., Inc.)
Margaret Newborg can't fathom why her daughter Julie won't read. She
spent hundreds of hours reading out loud to her, sent her to "all kinds of
toddler groups" and enrolled her in an exclusive Connecticut boarding
school with an excellent library.
"She had all the opportunities. And the most she will read on her own is
fashion magazines," laments Ms. Newborg, a New York outplacement
Julie, now a political science major at the University of Arizona, scored
more than 125 points above the national average on the verbal Scholastic
Aptitude Test, and she does read for class. But she races through her
homework to watch television.
Julie's reading habits help explain why literacy skills in the U.S. are falling.
The decline has implications for businesses that depend on a literate public
to buy their products. To deal with the problem, some magazine publishers
have started special children's editions. Others are using more photos and
Even companies that don't sell periodicals or books are worried. Not only
do poor readers make poor employees, but they're also poor consumers.
For companies like Procter & Gamble Co., "the better educated consumers
are the more affluent consumers -- and better customers for our products,"
says Robert L. Wehling, a vice president.
Experts and teachers agree that the nation's literacy problem is rooted in
modern culture, where flashy distractions easily win short attention spans
away from literary pursuits. Instead of reading , writing letters or
discussing politics, students spend their free time watching television,
talking on the phone, zapping video monsters and playing sports.
This year, the national average on the verbal college admissions test
administered by the College Board dropped again, to 424 from 427 last year
and 431 in 1986, matching the lowest score since averages were first
compiled in 1967.
The verbal section of the SAT exam isn't the last word on literacy. It was
designed to measure students' ability to learn in college, not knowledge
already acquired. Many educators say it's a better test of memory and
familiarity with middle-class concepts than reading prowess. Others
question the scores' significance, arguing that they have dropped because
more students from poor academic backgrounds are taking the test. Still,
the SAT stands as the leading national barometer of reading ability.
"We're living in a culture where language is not highly prized," says Ernest
L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of
Teaching. Adds Jane M. Healy, a Vail, Colo., education consultant and
writer: "We're raising kids to have two-minute minds."
Children aren't born with two-minute minds, but they lose interest along the
way. There are crucial times when they can make or break a reading
habit: as toddlers; when they start using textbooks in grammar school; and
most importantly, in junior high, when they suddenly face a myriad of social
Children are more likely to want to read if their parents read out loud to
them as toddlers. But many parents acknowledge that they don't do that
consistently -- either because they're beat at the end of a working day or
can't wean their children away from television or other activities.
Melinda Bracken, a Pittsburgh mother of three young daughters, says she
always thought she would read to her children daily. But it was hard to find
time when she worked full days as director of a local blood bank.
"Everyone was exhausted by dinnertime," she says. Now she's home
full-time and expecting her fourth child, but she feels time pressures from
having more kids. "What started as reading every night is now every other
night," she says. "There's more competition for mom's hours."
Preschool is also the age at which children first sit through dinner-table
conversations and hear words they don't learn in day-care. But many
families have only one parent, so the children and their limited vocabularies
dominate the conversation. And many two-income families are too busy or
too tired to share the meal or use it as a discussion forum.
Doff Meyer, a corporate communications consultant who works out of her
New York City home, says she and her husband read religiously to their
five-year-old son Brooks, but they only get to eat together two or three
times during the workweek because her husband travels for his job.
When her husband is in town, the schedule is harried. Ms. Meyer stops
working at 6 p.m., and her husband arrives home an hour later. But Brooks
gets hungry before then, so Ms. Meyer often feeds him first. Sometimes
Brooks sits through a hectic second dinner with the family and talks about
his parents' day. But he misses out on a regular diet of dinner table talk
between both parents.
"That was my idea of what we were supposed to do," Ms. Meyer says of
family dinners. "But things are different. We don't live the way our parents
lived." Instead, she says, the family spends its time together at the
playground on weekends.
In grammar school, children face another hurdle: Instead of learning to
read, they must start reading to learn -- and the textbooks aren't nearly as
much fun as stories by Maurice Sendak and Dr. Seuss.
"All of a sudden, here's this big, hard, long book with no pictures in it, and
no one's going to read it to you or hold you next to them while they're doing
it," says Ms. Healy, the education consultant, who touts children's literature
Consider Amy Barsukov of Pomona, N.Y. When she was little, she loved
being read to for two hours every day. "She couldn't get enough," says her
mother, kindergarten teacher Randee Barsukov. But after plowing through
third grade texts, Amy "got turned off," Ms. Barsukov says. Now a high
school sophomore, Amy spends all her time gabbing with friends on
And reading ? "Nah, I don't like to read," Amy says. "I think it's boring."
Last year, she had to read "Romeo and Juliet" for class. "Oh, it's OK,"
Amy says of Shakespeare's play, but she prefers teen magazines.
By far the most crucial point in a child's reading life is junior high school:
Hormones race, and students feel pressure to "be cool." These pressures
aren't new, and junior high school students have always been flighty. But
now, many are coping with the lure of drugs or the pain of divorce.
Moreover, televisions and telephones are sprouting in students' bedrooms.
And new types of gizmos and more activities vie for students' attention.
James Tew, an 11-year-old from Greenville, S.C., has his calendar
crammed with activities. He is on his school's football, baseball, basketball
and swim teams.
When James was younger, his mother took him to the library and read out
loud to him. That tactic inspired James's older sister, who finished reading
"Gone With the Wind" and "Grapes of Wrath" before she enrolled in fourth
But not James. He has no time to read. On school days, he gets home at
about 3:30 p.m., spends up to 90 minutes doing homework and then leaves
for practice. Back home at about 8:30 p.m., he has one hour before he
goes to sleep. And he doesn't spend it with a book. "His idea of reading is
to peruse baseball cards" and Nintendo magazine, sighs his mother, Glenda
The fallout becomes evident in high school. Art Peterson, a composition
teacher at Lowell High School in San Francisco, a public school where
students must compete to gain admission, says he has to start from scratch
teaching his freshmen how to write. Most haven't read enough to pick up
basic sentence construction.
Kathleen Gonzalez, an English teacher at Newington High School in an
affluent suburb of Hartford, Conn., describes her students' vocabularies as
"fairly disappointing." Once, during a test on "Romeo and Juliet," Mrs.
Gonzalez discovered that her freshman students didn't understand the word
John S. Carroll, editor of the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, says the
effect of the decline in literacy on newspapers is "alarming." The
Knight-Ridder paper, which draws a portion of its readership from rural,
impoverished counties, occasionally uses computer software called the
Flesch Test to measure a story's readability. The goal is to write stories at
a 10th or 11th grade level.
A recent series on education problems in Kentucky, which was named a
finalist for the Pulitzer Prize this year, was written for readers at an 8th or
9th grade level to make sure it was accessible to all subscribers. "We
boiled it down to the barest essentials," Mr. Carroll says.
Fears about losing readers have prompted some newspaper and magazine
publishers to start special children's editions. Time Warner distributes
thousands of free copies of Sports Illustrated for Kids at schools. IBM,
AT&T and other corporate sponsors pick up the tab. "Using sports baits
the kids to read more," says John Papanek, managing editor of the
Even the folks who write corporate annual reports seem to be concerned
about keeping readers these days. Sid Cato, who publishes a newsletter
ranking the reports, says more of them now contain glossy photographs to
make them more appealing to shareholders.
Still, the average sentence length in the 1989 reports climbed to 19.5 words
a sentence, up from 18.5 a year earlier. Mr. Kato figures it's better to stick
close to 12 if you really want anyone to read them. "You still have the
financial types mucking things up," he says.
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