Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home


When Reading Becomes Work: How Textbooks Ruin Reading

Posted: 2013-11-29

from National Association of Independent Schools, winter 2008

Newkirk argues that textbooks don't create readers, just profits.

The euphoria surrounding last summer's release of the final Harry Potter book -- the long lines, the slumber parties in bookstores -- obscures a disturbing trend in reading habits. Independent reading actually declines precipitously in the middle school and high school years -- and book reading among boys simply drops off a cliff.

Let's do the numbers. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation survey, Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8ΓΆ€“18 Year Olds, 40 percent of 8ΓΆ€“10 year-olds did some self-chosen book reading on the previous day; this figure dropped to 27 percent for 11-14 year-olds, and 26 percent for 15ΓΆ€“18 year-olds. The average time spent reading during a day dropped from 27 minutes per day in late elementary school to 21 minutes in middle school. The same trend was found in the Scholastic Kids and Family Reading Report: 44 percent of 5ΓΆ€“8 year-olds classified themselves as high-frequency readers, while only 16 percent of high school students made that classification. Moreover, the independent reading that middle and high school students do tends more toward magazines and newspapers than towards books (particularly for boys). My own college freshmen are often hard-pressed to name one book they read on their own and enjoyed.

This trend has obvious consequences for reading development. The more a student reads, the more likely he or she will be a proficient reader (for a thorough review on this question, see Cullinan, 2000). It is plausible -- indeed, common sense -- to believe that students who read extensively will develop the fluency, word recognition, vocabulary, comprehension skills, and confidence needed for proficient reading in high school and college. Those who don't will be "overmatched" and resort to short cuts and coping strategies.

The authors of the Kaiser report attribute the decline in elective reading to greater amounts of homework; reading is viewed as work, so leisure becomes an escape from work. It's worth asking, then, what happens in these late elementary and middle school years to turn reading into labor -- and one answer must surely be the prominence of textbooks. In most schools, education becomes divided along subject lines, and these subjects are taught through comprehensive (and extremely expensive) textbooks.

The rituals of textbook use are so familiar as to be part of the American landscape -- the way they are ceremoniously passed out at the beginning of the year, students wrapping them in butcher paper and checking to see who used them in previous years. They form the ballast in backpacks across the country. They fill the top compartments in lockers. They feel so substantial and durable when compared to the normal paperback.

Yet textbooks typically fail to provide the most basic conditions for readerly engagement. They are great vehicles for generating corporate profits, but poor ones for creating readers. They fail young readers on four dimensions of reading -- authorship, form, venue, and duration.

AUTHORSHIP. In her classic critique of history textbooks, Frances Fitzgerald notes that "texts are not 'written' anymore; they are, as the people in the industry say, 'developed,' and this process involves large numbers of people and compromises." Unlike in previous eras, textbooks typically have two or three authors, though in subsequent editions the revisions are often farmed out to unacknowledged writers. Those "developing" these texts must be uncommonly sensitive to the politics of textbook adoption in various states, where, as Diane Ravitch describes in The Language Police, they must finesse critics from the left and the right, and not appear to take sides on a politically charged topic.

As a result, readers are deprived of the very quality they typically seek in the books they choose -- a point of view. Indeed, very few popular books have multiple authors. Readers expect to make contact with an author, to sense the human being behind the words and to mull over that person's perspective. Authors, correspondingly, emphasize how important it is to perfect the "voice" in their writing that serves as a human link to readers. It is, in fact, difficult to think or react critically unless we sense the writer assuming a point of view or taking a stance. There is nothing to push against.

FORM. The great literary scholar Kenneth Burke described "form," as "the arousal and fulfillment of desire." It keeps us moving, anticipating as we read, hungry for more. In narratives, we read to see how conflicts are resolved and how this resolution affects characters we have come to know. Well-written nonfiction also seems plotted: questions are raised that need answering; authors deftly move from assertion to example, embedding well-chosen stories and surprising facts.

For centuries children learned about ancient Rome and Greece through the masterful short biographies in Plutarch's Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans. The American reading public clearly prefers to learn its history through the carefully constructed narratives of the likes of David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Textbooks, with so much to cover, rarely generate this kind of reading momentum. In fact, many seem to be going in the other direction; assuming a short attention span (and low reading level) on the part of students, they present the reader with a very busy page crammed with sidebars, photographs, and captions. The result sometimes looks like a version of People magazine with multiple stories fighting for the reader's attention. The temptation is to move sideways, from story to sidebar, defeating any possibility of a sustained reading experience.

VENUE. By "venue" I mean the placement of a piece of writing. A young adult novel may be originally published as a Scholastic paperback; a school anthology might excerpt part of that novel for a reading series; or an even shorter section might be used as a reading passage on a standardized test. These changes of venue matter, even when the text is not altered in the transformation to school texts (which is not always the case). School anthologies typically boast of the "high quality" literature they include, and many spend a great deal of money to include popular authors and texts. Yet encountering a text in its original venue is a very different experience from encountering the same text (or part of it) in a school anthology.

Part of the problem comes with the very conception of the anthology. Try to locate the "Anthology" section in your local bookstore. It practically doesn't exist -- for the simple reason that readers find them unsatisfying. Readers expect the consistency of a single author, style, and subject -- rather than having to re-orient themselves with each selection. Even collections of pieces by the same author are less appealing than a memoir or novel, which do not require so much repositioning. Anthologies thrive only in school settings where some measure of coercion can be used to see that the reading is done.

The change of venue to school anthologies usually involves surrounding the selection with a teaching apparatus -- comprehension questions, extended writing activities, vocabulary lessons, etc. In this era of No Child Left Behind, any reading passage will be aligned with some reading standard. There is an agenda, beyond the engagement of the reader. The reader no longer feels that he or she can attend to issues of personal interest; rather key ideas are predetermined by the reading skills specialists. Reading is transformed from an experience to a task. It concludes not with that special feeling of literary closure -- but with a set of comprehension assignments. Readers lose the sense of autonomy they experience when reading texts in the original venue, on their own terms.

DURATION. It is beyond obvious to state that readers begin and finish books -- and that they do so in a time frame usually measured in days, weeks at most. I was fascinated not only with the anticipation and wild popularity surrounding the release of the last Harry Potter book; I was stunned by how quickly even very young readers finished it. There was an irresistible drive to the end, even if it meant a sleepless night or two. While few books may elicit this compulsiveness, most readers know that drive to the last page and drop everything to get there. They know the experience of lingering after the last page, reluctant to leave this imaginary world that, for a time, was more real than the real one. There can be no such satisfaction with a textbook. Relief, perhaps, at the end of a term when the book is returned, the butcher paper cover taken off, but little sense of beginning and ending. The pace of independent reading and textbook reading could hardly be more divergent.

I realize that my modest proposal -- to, as much as possible, place truly authored trade books at the center of the middle school curriculum -- runs up against huge obstacles. One involves the unwieldy set of standards and objectives that pass for curriculum in this country. There is so much to cover. Here, for example, is one recent sixth-grade state standard for social studies in my own state:

Demonstrate a basic understanding of the origin, development, and distinctive characteristics of the major ancient, classical, and agrarian civilizations including Mesopotamian, Ancient Hebrew, Egyptian, Nubian (Kush), Greek, Roman, Gupta Indian, Han Chinese, Islamic, Byzantine, Olmec, Mayan, Aztec, and Incan civilizations. (New Hampshire State Frameworks -- Sixth Grade, Social Studies, Standard 18).

My point is not the ludicrousness of this list, or the almost unimaginable superficiality involved in meeting it. Rather, it seems to me that any attempt to meet this objective will necessitate a textbook that can cover everything. And because so much effort must be put into covering material, reading a full book on a topic will slow this march through the world's civilizations. The more cluttered the curriculum, the more textbooks become a necessity.

Another objection I imagine is the emphasis I have placed on the conditions for real engagement in reading. Middle school, some will argue, is a time to learn subjects, a time to put aside the "nurturing" environment of elementary school. In extreme cases, subject area teachers even decline to see themselves as involved in reading at all. Yet, reading competes for student loyalty in a crowded media environment, and, as the Kaiser study shows, the middle school period is the crucial fulcrum where many students decide to draw their narrative pleasures from media other than print. It is crucial, I believe, to view this rejection of book reading not as the character flaw of students, but as the rational choice to seek narrative pleasure elsewhere -- because reading, itself, has become work.

The noted middle school educator Nancie Atwell, author of The Reading Zone, argues that we need to become comfortable with the "P" word -- comfortable with "pleasure" as a motivating force in reading. This language of desire and gratification is virtually nonexistent in the rhetoric of reform. Yet, when it comes to reading, there are pragmatic reasons for asking what is in it for the student. Not somewhere down the line, in the future, but in the moment.

Like Atwell, I believe that reading can compete, that it can offer profound pleasure, that anyone who enters the meditative "zone" of reading will want to return to it -- and will seek out the authors who can transport them to that place. One of Atwell's students describes this zone as follows: "Sometimes I become the best friend of the main character, someone who doesn't talk but just listens to his or her problems and joys. I feel as if the character needs me there, so I don't want to leave the novel." Students who have never experienced this inner theater are puzzled by the loyalty of readers. How can anyone sit still, alone, for such a long time and not be lonely, or fidgety, or simply bored by these endless lines of print, 26 letters, infinitely recombined? Many of these students can read; they just don't know why anyone would want to.

I am arguing, then, that the pleasure of reading (both fiction and nonfiction) comes from entering a meditative state in which the reader is not even conscious of reading -- or conscious of the passing of time. The reader is in the text, a confidant or observer. Readers, to be sure, can resurface for discussion and analysis ΓΆ€” in fact, engagement is a prerequisite for analysis.

And as much as I appreciate video games and other visual media, they can't match these particularized worlds of extended self-chosen reading. It breaks my heart that so many students can't get into that zone -- or even know it's there.

Thomas Newkirk is a professor of English at the University of New Hampshire and director and founder of the New Hampshire Literacy Institutes. His recent books include Teaching the Neglected "R" (2007, coedited with Richard Kent) and Misreading Masculinity (2004).


Atwell, Nancie. The Reading Zone, How to Help Kids Become Skilled, Passionate, Habitual, Critical Readers. New York: Scholastic, 2007.

Cullinan, Bernice. "Independent Reading and School Achievement." School Library Media Research. Volume 3 (2000), http://www.ala.org/ala/aasl/aaslpubsandjournals/slmrb/slmrcontents/volume32000/independent.cfm

Fitzgerald, Frances. America Revised: History Schoolbooks in the Twentieth Century. New York: Vintage, 1979.

Kids and Family Reading Report. New York: Scholastic, 2006. http://www.scholastic.com/aboutscholastic/news/reading_survey_press_call_2.pdf

Ravitch, Diane. The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn. New York: Knopf, 2003.

Roberts, Donald; Foehr, Ella, and Rideout, Virginia. Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8ΓΆ€“18 Year Olds. Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation, 2005.

More Commentaries

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.