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Are teenagers really reluctant readers?




Teenage boy on laptop and phoneAhead of her talk at IATEFL 2011 in Brighton entitled ‘Getting students into extensive reading painlessly: A threefold solution’, Sue Parminter, series co-editor of the Dominoes Readers series, considers how to get today’s tech-savvy teenagers reading books.

What do you take with you when you travel alone by plane? I have a hunch the answer to this question reveals lots about us. I never get on even a short-haul flight without a book to read: I guess having a paperback in my hand also reassures me that I won’t need to bury my nose in the in-flight magazine in order to escape from tedious conversations with over-chatty people who might be in the seats next to mine. When my kids were young, our in-flight bags invariably bulged with colouring books and crayons, replaced – as the kids aged – by hand-held computer game consoles, and latterly by iPods, crammed to bursting with music and films.

A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting on a plane with a book in my hands, letting my thoughts drift, when my pleasant daydreams were rudely interrupted by a boy of about thirteen moaning to his parents in the row behind mine. He’d been perfectly happy when I’d followed them up the stairs onto the plane, earphone attached to his android mobile, tapping out text on the screen faster than I can type on a regular computer keyboard. The cause of his sudden fury was the safety instruction to turn off all electronic equipment, forcing him to enter into reluctant, monosyllabic conversation with his parents while the plane taxied and took off.

His reaction brought home to me the parallels between my addiction to words on a paper page and a teenager’s dependence on the small screen. Although I find it fascinating to play with an iPad, turning digital pages at the swipe of a finger and marvelling at how ‘real’ they look, I’m a bit too old to transfer my passion for paper text to the screen version. For me, the traditional bookworm, it’s a technological gulf as hard to cross as it must be for ‘digital natives’ to feel passionate about reading books, especially school books in a language not their own.

It is really vital – I feel – for us English language teachers not to underestimate how wide this ‘digital native-print native’ divide is, and how much we need to do in order to bridge it.  But there’s one aspect of the small LCD screens that have invaded our world in recent years that we can also be grateful for. Ten years ago, studies of how teenagers spent their time shocked us when they itemized all the hours spent in front of television sets. Nowadays the balance has tilted away from the passive watching of larger screens to interacting in various ways with smaller ones, and this quantum shift towards interactivity makes a significant difference.

Today’s computer-savvy teens read (and write) much more than their TV-addicted counterparts 10 years ago. Our challenge is to try to make the reading and writing they do in class more exciting, so that it shares some key features with their on-screen experiences.  To tempt teenagers into book-reading in English, we need to make books available to them that ‘break the mould’ – volumes that are colourful and modern in style, that chop up longer stories into short manageable chunks, that allow possibilities throughout for interacting with the text, and that are engaging for today’s multi-tasking teens, giving them chances to listen to dramatized audio tracks, or to work through puzzle-type interactive activities on a computer after they finish a couple of chapters.

It can really dishearten you coming face-to-face with a class of disgruntled fourteen-year-olds who wrinkle their faces in disgust when you ask the question, ‘Do you like reading?’ and who act resentful when you announce that you’d like them all to read a book before the end of term. But instead of abandoning the plan, why not simply work on re-presenting it with more teen-appeal? Remember that most of your students are, in fact, already addicted to reading – to reading messages from their friends, to chatting online, to scouring their preferred social network site for the latest gossip, or to poring over their favourite star’s blog.

Isn’t that a heartening realization? If it’s true what they say that ‘we learn to read by reading’, then does it really matter what or where young people read, as long as they are busy decoding the meaning of different texts in their heads?

Bearing all this in mind, I suppose really what we need to get across to our teenage students is that entering into the world of a ‘story’ – whether on a printed page, or on a computer screen – can be an intensely enjoyable, even compelling experience. What an adventure it is to share for a while a lovingly-constructed virtual reality with life-like characters dreamt up, and programmed by their author to take us on a wild rollercoaster ride through plot twists and turns, and ‘cliff-hanger’ chapter endings, until we reach the safe haven of our final destination! Reading, in fact, gives us a chance to travel to other places, explore different time zones, and make friends with a whole new bunch of quirky people, maybe even getting under the skin of some of them as if they were larger-than-life ‘avatars’ of ourselves.

My three kids, who grew up in Spain and were schooled in Spanish, all ‘cracked’ reading at length in English as teens because of different gripping stories they were hungry to experience for themselves. Thank you Harry Potter, Bella Swan, and Tom Builder for being so inspiring!

How to get teenagers reading books is clearly a tricky question. But, in addressing that, let’s not ignore the reading that they do already. Doesn’t that give us some pointers on how to manage extensive reading with EFL classes of teens?

Sue Parminter
Series editor, with Bill Bowler, of the Dominoes Readers series published by OUP

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