Why People Don’t Read

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

There’s a big problem, at least in the United States, revolving around getting people to read books. Most kids start their reading in schools; yet, as they grow up, they never get back into the habit of reading books. So the problem becomes why people aren’t interested in reading after going through primary education.

I would say a lot of this has to do with what teachers give them to read. A fact we need to face is that very few people give a shit about stuff like Charles Dickens. If you want people to develop a habit for reading, you want to give them something that’s relevant to their needs and interests, engaging, and easy to understand.

I want to start off talking about that last point. A lot of the time US education likes driving up an artificial difficulty curve and give students works that are purposely hard to read. The reality is that the value of reading comes from the messages and ideas that the writer is trying to convey. I’m not saying that all reading throughout the education system needs to be easy, or that there’s no value in reading older texts. What I’m instead saying is that getting 8th graders to read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is a pretty useless exercise.

There’s also the problem that different people are, of course, interested in different things. I did trash on Charles Dickens, but I imagine there are high-schoolers out there who did genuinely get invested reading Great Expectations or Oliver Twist. This comes into contact with another problem in modern education, which is allowing students to follow the paths that they are most interested in. I would say that a good way to go about this is to find texts that have a lot of modern relevance and popularity (including classic texts!) and make a general series of readings based on those; books like Sapiens, A Short History of Nearly Everything, or To Kill a Mockingbird might be good examples here. The great thing about these books is that they’re not written for children, but they aren’t archaic either. This means that middle-schoolers and high-schoolers would still have to work in order to read these books, but are still getting important info out of it.

And, of course, to get people to continue reading independently, the stuff they read needs to be engaging. That means no textbooks. In order to get people wanting to do something on their own terms, you can’t introduce it to them in such a dry fashion. Perhaps technical textbooks have a place in graduate studies, but they certainly don’t have a place when teaching to high school students.

Putting it all together, if you get people reading at a young age, they won’t have any problems reading at an old age. As long as you get people reading what they’re interested in and engaged with, they’ll end up searching for reading content all by themselves.

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3 thoughts on “Why People Don’t Read

  1. Copying and pasting a reply to this blog post that was posted on reddit. Reddit post can be found here: https://www.reddit.com/r/education/comments/cvqviy/why_people_dont_read/

    There are a lot of unsupported blanket statements in that blog post. “Most kids start their reading in schools; yet, as they grow up, they never get back into the habit of reading books.” [citation needed] my dude.

    The U.S. is generally in the middle of the pack of developed countries in terms of reading stats [1]. Americans read about as much as Germans do; more than the Japanese, Koreans, and Brits; and a bit less than Canadians, Turks, and Spaniards. Indians and Thais are far and away the biggest readers.

    Reporting loves to frame reading stats in a dire way, but the fact remains that the majority of Americans, across all demographic spectra, read at least one book per year [2]. For whatever reason, we’re desperate to push a narrative that American society is one of nonreaders, but the evidence does not ultimately support that.

    1. https://examinedexistence.com/which-country-reads-the-most/

    2. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/03/23/who-doesnt-read-books-in-america/

    1. I think this comment is valid. I wanted the focus of my post more so to be potential strategies for helping increase reading rates in general for Americans. I don’t think “people not wanting to read” is the number one issue facing American education today because it isn’t. Rather, I believe that the current system in engaging future readers is flawed and I believe there are potentially better methods for going about it. With this in mind, I think it is important for us to understand that, like this comment suggests, the general media reporting does tend to make it seem like “Americans are dumb because they never read” when in reality most do read, though this stat could still be improved. I probably could have chosen better words in regards to this. Thanks for the comment!

  2. I think this is an interesting topic and an insightful take on it, but, while the scope of the piece may be a general advisory to increase the population of readers in United States, I believe a few considerations should be made.

    Based on personal experience and understanding, it’s not surprising why many students leave reading after the classroom. As a student, there are obvious consequences to be faced if a reading assignment or passage is not completed, whether it means a loss in class participation or credit, or even the negative feeling of getting called on the next class to comment or answer questions about the text.

    While plenty of discipline is found, I feel a lack of emphasis on the real benefits of reading. These may be addressed or discussed in a classroom setting, but if they aren’t truly understood, then in the students’ adult lives, they will find it hard to invest time into reading, fiction or nonfiction, when there are other endeavors with much clearer objectives to be sought after.

    In a society in which time is money, reading a book has been made an elective hobby, something that is thought to be done only by intellectuals who have nothing else to do. Of course that’s not true, as it’s a gross overgeneralization of the reading population. There are many people who later on, perhaps many years later, who rediscover reading when the loss of its benefits are detected later on, be it a limited imagination, a lack of vocabulary, or the delightful feeling of delving into another’s thoughts and surroundings, real or not.

    While I do agree that Shakespeare and Dickens aren’t especially catching works, no less amongst angsty 13-17 year olds, the real significance of these pieces are not really delved into. The standards are brushed upon, such as literary devices, purpose, rhythm, etc. But the heart of these pieces, that these men and women had enraptured so many people at their times and in contemporary times, is what, I believe, is the biggest takeaway to reading these pieces. What did these people do to set them apart from others of their time? What drove them to the written (or spoken) word?

    The other point to be made is that, while we may not read physical books as often, there are other media and platform readers find themselves, especially in this day and age. Researchers and scientists read articles, dissertations, papers, and other sources of thought fairly regularly, as do those of many other fields and disciplines. Also, many people are now listening and reading books, blog articles, and other written pieces on phones, tablets, and computers, even though I myself would always prefer and encourage my own students and children towards the use of physical, flip-through-able books.

    Americans are not reading books less than the rest of the world. We are not as behind as many other countries in the world, though obviously, there are a few who may surpass us in this regard. However, I do believe that the core issue is how educators approach introducing literature to their students. It’s difficult to interest students in a book some dead person wrote many years ago, when instant gratification is just a few taps and swipes away, but I would love to hear more thoughts on how students can discover the love of reading naturally.

    If you are a parent or teacher, how do you get your students to love reading?

    I appreciate the thoughts and insight, Robinson offers and would love to hear more.


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