THERE is both good news and bad news in a new report on what American children are reading. The bottom line seems to be that while the literary classics are not dead, neither are they - or reading in general - in robust good health.
The survey, conducted by Renaissance Learning, a Wisconsin-based company whose Accelerated Reading and other learning programs are used in 63,000 schools nationwide, found that more than 78 million books were read last year by the more than 3 million students from first grade through twelfth grade who logged onto the company's Web site. It was the largest-ever survey of the reading habits of American students.
The good news was that many of the authors being read by students today would be familiar to their parents. Dr. Seuss is still big with children in the lower grades, E.B. White is still charming slightly older readers, Judy Blume's Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing remains a hit with, of course, fourth-graders, and Harper Lee and John Steinbeck are must-reads for high-schoolers.
Also encouraging is the fact that there are plenty of contemporary authors on the list, from the phenomenon that is J.K. Rowling to less-well-known names (at least among adults) such as Laura Numeroff, Dav Pilkey, and Lemony Snicket (the nom de plume of Daniel Handler).
The bad news was the impression that many books in the top 20 lists, especially at the high school level, were classroom assignments. Arthur Miller's The Crucible, William Golding's Lord of the Flies, Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, George Orwell's Animal Farm, and William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, as well as others, appear regularly on high school reading lists.
More discouraging was the fact that students in middle and high school just aren't reading enough.
In the survey, the number of books read per student per year peaked in second grade at 46.2 then declined rapidly after third grade's 40.2 to 7.1 books in eighth grade and 4.5 books in 12th grade. Admittedly, the books read in second and third grade are shorter than those read as students grow older, but fewer than than five books per year, including those assigned in class, is a remarkably small number.
Perhaps that is one reason that among the chief complaints of new college students is that they're asked to read too much, while tops on the list for college instructors is that their students don't do assigned readings and don't understand them when they do.
As the survey points out, reading takes practice, and the best practice for reading is to read - a lot. It doesn't even matter what's read. The classics are nice, and they serve the useful purpose of passing down a bit of culture to the next generation, but children of every age should be encouraged to read anything and everything that interests them - from graphic novels to classic novels, auto repair to autobiographies, and romances to Roman history.
Think of reading as a sort of college fund. The bigger investment made into that fund over the first 18 years, the greater the return when students head off to university. And, reading will keep paying dividends for the rest of their lives.