When was the last time you read a book purely to enjoy it? Chances are it wasn’t during English class, and you probably weren’t reading for a grade.
In today’s competitive culture, teenagers are reading for fun less than ever. Part of the reason is that they are rarely, if ever, encouraged to pick up a book and read what they want, when they want. As homework piles up, reading for pleasure can seem like the last thing we should be focusing on. Most classes do not teach students to view literature as a medium for meaningful personal and emotional experiences, but rather as an intellectual stimulus that at times can be intimidating.
Ask any English student and they will tell you, annotations and comprehension questions can zap the fun out of a reading assignment in moments. Senior Nils Glader explained, “I think Socratic seminars and presentations make reading more understandable and enjoyable. When teachers lecture about a book or we are assigned specific worksheets for books, I think it makes the book much less enjoyable.”
A study by Common Sense Media found that 45 percent of 17-year-olds only read for pleasure once or twice a year. This is not altogether surprising when one considers the fact that almost 60 percent of students are involved in at least one activity outside of school, most likely sports. By the time a student goes to school, then goes to sports practice– or music lessons, art class, rehearsal, what have you– returns home, eats dinner, and finishes homework, the likelihood that they have extra time to read is slim. And when that reading doesn’t get them any credit in school, it can seem like a waste of time.
Remember those painful annotations and review questions? That’s what turns simply reading (you know, for fun) into an assignment in the eyes of most students. Time spent reading is just too hard to quantify without something to pin value to, like a worksheet turned in for points. But isn’t it worth it to try?
Reading does have value. It can reduce stress, lead to better scores on vocabulary and overall intelligence tests, keep the mind sharp later in life, increase empathy, and help maintain a healthy sleep schedule. But the kind of reading that includes all of these health benefits is not the kind typically assigned in school; scientists point to works of fiction read for pleasure, so, not a textbook or a story accompanied by a lengthy assignment.
In Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature, he explores the idea that the human circle of empathy has been expanding over recorded history, as we slowly view more and more beings as worthy of rights. One of the biggest causes of this expansion, Pinker says, is the Reading Revolution; that is, a shift in the 18th century from specialized reading of a few sacred texts to mass consumption of varied literature. What came with that reading was a slew of new ideas about human rights, criminal justice reform, and just government.
Reading fiction is proven to boost Theory of Mind, the ability for people to understand viewpoints much different than their own. Seeing the world from the perspective of someone completely different, and visualizing a world far removed from one’s reality, is an experience unique to fiction writing, and in today’s polarizing world, having more empathy is never a bad thing.
Let’s go back to the fact that reading can improve sleep. For a lot of high schoolers, a full night of sleep is a pretty rare phenomenon. Part of that might be because checking social media or watching television before bed is a common routine for teenagers, but in reality using screens only stimulates the brain and makes it harder to reach deep sleep. But– you guessed it– reading has the exact opposite effect. Maybe if students were shown the power of great literature and given the choice to read whatever interests them, they would be more inclined to incorporate reading into their nighttime routines.
AP Literature teacher Lisa Otsuka said, “Reading can benefit students by improving concentration, increasing emotional intelligence, and connecting students to their humanity and compassion. Reading is a solitary experience that paradoxically connects us to other people. Reading gives us increased awareness and access to multiple perspectives and vantage points…sophisticated passages and nuanced literature makes us more comfortable with nuance and ambiguity in life.”
Reading allows people to travel the world without leaving their houses, fuels deeper reflection of the world around them, and creates a healthier lifestyle. But if teenagers are not taught to appreciate reading and given the opportunity to include it as part of their daily schedule starting in school, they likely will not develop reading habits later in life.
There are ways that free reading can be incorporated into English classes, if teachers push students to explore new books on their own. Otuska added, “Teachers can also constantly suggest books, articles, and poems that relate to what is taught in the classroom. After I shared my summer reading novels, I had several students begin reading Silence in an Age of Noise and Lincoln in the Bardo. Teachers can encourage impromptu book clubs.”
And for students who just do not have hours to devote to reading but still crave the physical and mental benefits, fear not. A study found that reading for six minutes a day can reduce stress by up to 68 percent. New perspectives, a healthier brain, decreased stress, better sleep, all for less than an hour a week– now that’s a pretty good deal.