The title of the article leaped out at me, arresting my attention: “Why Kids Aren’t Falling in Love with Reading.”
The immediate, intuitive, answer would somehow trace back to screens. But according to the article itself, published in The Atlantic and written by Katherine Marsh, it’s something else.
It’s the way we are having them read.
My mother could talk about a book like it was something good to eat. When she finished describing it, I had to read it. Reading was presented as such a ravenous delight that I could be punished by not being allowed to go to the library.
As a young boy, I can remember devouring Ellery Queen mysteries on long vacation drives; taking a hot bath and reading The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder; curling up in the bay window of a local library, as cascades of rain dripped down the glass, with a harrowing tale of Blackbeard the Pirate. I still have the copy of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, worn from countless readings, given to me on my 12th birthday by my grandmother. To this moment, the perfect day is one with a sky full of dark and heavy clouds promising a furious storm, or inches of snow with a fire in the fireplace and a book waiting by my side.
And that is why children aren’t reading any more—they are no longer reading for fun.
Marsh notes a survey taken just before the pandemic by the National Assessment of Educational Progress that showed the percentages of 9- and 13-year-olds who said they read daily for fun had dropped by double digits since 1984.
Largely because of the way our educational system teaches kids to relate to books.
No longer is the goal to read as many books as possible, much less to engage emotionally with them. “Now the focus on reading analytically seems to be squashing the organic enjoyment.” Through a focus on critical reading and analysis, the “love of books and storytelling is being lost.”
Imagine being in the third grade and given the following assignment regarding assigned reading: “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, distinguishing literal from nonliteral language.”
And imagine doing this from the reading of a single paragraph from Peggy Parish’s Amelia Bedelia.
No wonder the love of reading is extinguished.
For goodness’ sake, let them read the book! As Marsh notes, let them laugh at Amelia’s antics first. “Jumping into a paragraph in the middle of a book,” she writes, “is about as appealing for most kids as cleaning their room.”
Particularly when the only goal is to analyze.
Young people should experience the intrinsic pleasure of taking a narrative journey, making an emotional connection with a character (including ones different from themselves), and wondering what will happen next—then finding out. This is the spell that reading casts. And, like with any magician’s trick, picking a story apart and learning how it’s done before you have experienced its wonder risks destroying the magic.
In my book A Mind for God I wrote of a time my family and I traveled to Disney World in Orlando, Florida. There for a week, our pattern was to go to the parks early in the morning, come back to the hotel for a mid-afternoon break, and then go back out for the evening. One day, during one of the afternoons back at the hotel, we were sitting in the atrium around a table doing what came naturally to us as a family.
We were reading.
My oldest daughter was tearing through the latest installment of Harry Potter in order to pass it on to her siblings; my other daughter was soldiering her way through Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov; my oldest son was reading – again – Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings; and my youngest son was laughing uproariously over some unfortunate event conceived by Lemony Snicket.
I had my own stack of books beside me, as if they were a mound of pastries that I couldn’t yet decide which to eat first. A history by David McCullough, I believe, finally won. My wife, bless her soul, was actually reading one of her husband’s books.
Martyrs still exist.
A woman walked over to our table, openly marveling at seeing six people – and particularly four children – reading. She said it was a wonderful sight, and wondered how we did it. I remember thinking that we didn’t do anything—we genuinely enjoyed reading. But there was something that caused my children to love a book. It started by doing what my mother did—talking about books like they were truly a pleasure. Then, throughout their life, modeling a life that read.
But then another thought entered my mind: What led us to read that day? The same thing that had led us to read a thousand days before. On that day, upon returning to the hotel room, the TV went on just like it would in your family. But then Susan and I instinctively said to our kids: “Why don’t you get a book and read instead? Come on, let’s go out together and sit by a table and read.”
Then we added, “It will be fun.”
So we did.
And so it was.
James Emery White
Katherine Marsh, “Why Kids Aren’t Falling in Love with Reading,” The Atlantic, March 22, 2023, read online.
James Emery White, A Mind for God (InterVarsity Press), order on Amazon.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Hybrid Church: Rethinking the Church for a Post-Christian Digital Age, is now available on Amazon or from your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president.
His latest book, After “I Believe,” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast.
Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.