The Dumbing Down of Reading: Gone Too Far?

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Dumbing Down of Reading

I’m certainly not an expert on teaching kids to read. I’m merely an avid reader myself, and an author. I was also once a kid who was raised free-range when it came to books. If I wanted to read it, I could, as long as it wasn’t grossly inappropriate. But what I see today when it comes to getting kids to read is…Disheartening. At best. As if it’s not hard enough to get kids to put down the screens in favor of books, well-meaning organizations and individuals seem to be making the problem worse by dumbing down reading to the point that kids (and parents) just don’t want to bother.

What am I talking about when I refer to the “dumbing down of reading?” The misguided efforts to restrict, classify, and otherwise “guide” the development and dissemination of literature into “child-appropriate” categories at the expense of common sense or utility.

I noted above that I was a free-range reading kid. So were most of my peers. Only the devoutly religious kids had any real reading restrictions placed on them. The rest of us were allowed to read what we wanted as long as the material wasn’t totally inappropriate. And there was a pretty long leash there, too. Our parents knew that reading was necessary for us to succeed in life. Other adults knew this, too. That’s why our librarians and teachers encouraged us to read. It didn’t matter if the material was above or below our grade level, or if the books were long or short. Genre didn’t matter, either. Reading mattered. The rest was just details. If it interested us enough to get us to read, then it was awesome.

Today, though, it’s a different story. Whether it’s a result of the “teaching to tests” method favored by so many schools, helicopter parenting gone awry, or publishing’s attempt to goose the money train by classifying everything to death, reading is in danger of becoming so complicated that no one wants to bother with it. And when that happens, we end up with illiterate kids who only know how to operate a screen. Plus, we end up with kids who miss out on all the other benefits of reading like increased empathy, critical thinking skills, and the ability to independently navigate the world of contracts and jobs.

At the school level, I see kids restricted to reading only things that meet certain criteria. Books must match the grade level in terms of length and complexity in order to be valid choices. Never mind if a kid is beyond those books and finds them boring. Kids aren’t allowed to roam the library at will and choose books that interest them. (And let’s not start on censorship that removes titles form those shelves entirely.) Yes, kids might have more leeway at home than at school, but that’s assuming that parents make reading a priority. Sadly, that’s not often the case.

In bookstores and libraries, everything is broken down into so many age levels and categories that it becomes intimidating for kids. Plus, it’s a bit embarrassing for a teen to pick books from the middle-grade/elementary shelves. Growing up we had two sections in the library/bookstore: The adult section and the children’s section. The latter housed everything from picture books to what is now considered YA. The only things that were separated out were the books for the very youngest readers. The picture books and “See Jane Run” type of books. Everything else — Judy Blume, Sweet Valley High, Narnia, Babysitter’s Club, Boxcar Children, etc. — was shelved by author or series. There were no divisions of YA, middle-grade, Tween-lit, elementary readers, etc. If you were seven or seventeen, you went to those shelves and picked out books with abandon. (Assuming you weren’t over in adult-land picking out more complicated fare.)

I get it. This segmentation is supposed to help parents, teachers, and kids meet their educational goals and keep inappropriate content out of the hands of kids. And there’s a lot more children’s lit out there than when I was young, so it’s helpful (supposedly) to break it down into manageable bites. But it’s out of control. Kids may want to read more difficult stuff, but feel like they can’t. As I noted above, it’s embarrassing if they want to read a MG novel but have to pick it from the little-kid section. It also reinforces the idea that a kid might not be smart enough to handle the books in the next section, or that they’re dumb if they choose books from the “lower” section. What is so wrong with just letting kids read without getting hung up on age groups and reading levels?

And as for publishers… There’s an obsession with length in children’s literature. X number of pages = Middle Grade. Y number of pages = YA. Z number of pages = early reader. Who cares? Why can’t a middle grade novel be longer or shorter than YA, or vice versa? If the story is gripping, a kid will stay with it. Yes, it may take them longer to read a lengthy work, but that’s all to the good. It improves attention span and comprehension. The focus should be on finding stories that kids want to read, not on fretting over length or where exactly it will fit in a bookstore. Or meeting some random marketing quota for publishing a certain number of titles of certain lengths in certain genres. Good stories win out, regardless of shelving unit.

All this stratification simply convinces kids and parents that reading is too complicated. Or a potential source of embarrassment. No one wants to feel stupid compared to their peers, but labeling everything serves exactly that purpose. “Oh, you read at level 5? Hah. I’m at level 8.” “Oh, you’re picking books from the baby shelves. I’m picking from the mature shelves.” None of this encourages reading. All it does is make kids reach for the screen, instead. A video game doesn’t judge them or make them feel less than because they like something that isn’t “approved” for them. It doesn’t require a ton of decisions to play, either. Turn it on and go. Reading is becoming a whole “thing” that more and more people don’t want to bother with.

And it frustrates parents and teachers, too. It used to be that the disqualifying factor of a book was content. Was it wildly inappropriate for a kid, or did it violate a family’s religious or moral code? No? Then go ahead and read it. But now you not only have to account for those things, you have to adhere to whatever reading level the school system has assigned your kid. A librarian can’t just recommend a great book; it has to pass a bunch of tests or be on a certain list. Some of my most treasured books were recommendations from librarians and booksellers. They gave me their best based on my interests. They can’t do that, now. And that reduces reading to a cold, anti-social activity that’s no fun for anyone.

This dumbing down of reading limits the possibilities of reading. Instead of serendipitously discovering books, authors, and ideas, kids have their choices made for them. “Read from this list, and only this list.” It limits a child’s ability to organically progress as a reader. Instead of moving at your own pace, now you move at the pace set by the school. That limits and frustrates kids who just want to read what interests them. Sure, they can circumvent this if they read at home and have awesome parents, but for many kids, their only exposure to reading comes through school. And when that’s so heavily restricted and prescribed, the only result can be frustrated and, ultimately, disinterested readers.

(Image by IvanPais)

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