One of the key elements in reading instruction is helping students develop the skills to apply when they don't understand what they're reading. In the early stages it's clues on how to decode or sound out words, later it shifts to comprehension and how to make use of what you're reading, how to talk about the ideas in a text and how to use what you read in your life.
In recent years I've had many encounters with young readers who are turning the pages and seem to be engrossed in a book but are unable to tell me anything about what they have read. Sometimes they're unable to even recall main characters or "what's going on" but a more common experience is that they have no opinion about the story, the decisions made by the characters, the implications of the plot etc. In other words, not thinking at all about what they're reading.
When teaching these comprehension and deeper thinking skills it's important that a student know when they're not getting it. I, for example, when reading a complicated novel often will flip back a few pages if a character appears and I'm not sure exactly who they are or what their motives might be. Many of you probably do the same, or in a newspaper article when a person is quoted you might look back to see exactly who it is, especially if they're listed only by their last name.
When students are reading along without comprehending it becomes difficult to lead them towards a deeper connection and understanding of what they read.
I began asking what was happening with these kids. Why were they content to read what they didn't understand? What sort of dull experience were they accepting by doing this?
My theory is that many kids are developing the skills to accept what they don't understand and be passive receptors of information or entertainment in our current culture. When I would talk further with kids who were not able to form an opinion about what they read, or remember any essential information about the text I found that most of the time they were watching large amounts of video games, TV and video. Now, the electronic media has been the bad guy in the "Why are students so stupid" stories for as long as there's been electronic media, but I think there's something else going on here. And while "What it is ain't exactly clear" I have some ideas. The types of entertainment these kids were talking about were almost entirely programs, games, films etc. that were built around mature themes. Sex and violence of course being the major selling points, but not the only things going on in the stories to be sure. Asking further what they thought about the video stories yielded almost the same lack of deeper thinking or comprehension. It seems like the young kids, and I'm talking about eight year old kids watching R rated films, were content to watch something that made little sense because they knew from experience that pretty soon someone who either loose their clothes or there would be some terrific explosions. My theory is that kids can become used to not understanding what they're seeing or reading because they've grown accustomed to it through a daily diet of entertainment that was originally designed for a much older and hopefully wiser audience. You could easily argue about the suitability of some of the material for anyone, but I think free choice is an important thing for adults to exercise. And I think we have that, prime time TV may be filled with one programs that aim low but there's still the off button on the remote.
Recently there has been a lot of discussion about a new series on MTV called "Skins" I've never seen it and know virtually nothing about it other than some people are writing editorials saying "They've gone too far this time" while others are saying "The average young teen has seen much worse" My question is "Why has the average young teen seen much worse?" and "What can we do to make sure the average teen doesn't see much worse?" and "What price do we pay when the average kid sees much worse?"
I don't like to sound alarmist, I'm not inclined to predict the end of the world but I am fearful of people not asking the questions.
What does it mean if so many people are developing the skills to not think? This might be the cue to move into a discussion about the age of sound bite, accusation, and conspiracy theory passing for news but I'll save that discussion for another time. Right now I have a good book I'd like to read and think about.