THE BUZZ: Well-Read, Well-Fed

By on November 10, 2015

In an increasingly digital world, the battle to reignite a love for books holds major weight.

Small illuminated screens are more readily accessible than books these days. (Photo: Kelly Halpin)

Small illuminated screens are more readily accessible than books these days. (Photo: Kelly Halpin)

Jackson, WY – We don’t read. Statistically, a third of those who begin this article won’t make it halfway through. More than half won’t ever make it to the nut graph. Far less than that know what a nut graph is. Reading this online? It gets worse. Scrolling takes such monumental “effort” that one out every 10 readers won’t bother getting past the first couple of paragraphs that appear on page load. If you make it to the end, congratulate yourself, you’re among the 38 percent that read a news article start-to-finish, according to data compiled by the traffic analysis firm Chartbeat.

“Reading is a difficult skill to master,” Dr. Susan Wise Bauer admitted early in her 90-minute presentation at the Jackson Hole Classical Academy last Thursday. The nationally renowned author/historian has been sharing her passion for reading, and how classical schools and homeschooling parents can foster the same in their students and children. The 47-year-old has been helping the private school develop a reading list, curriculum and teaching methods that will inspire kids to want to read.

Reading for pleasure is practically a lost art. Blame online “bouncing,” where a tweet or email or popup can disrupt any semblance of concentration. At the coffee shop or in the bathroom, print reading sessions are equally brief – interrupted by the demands of an on-the-go society. Game rooms and theatres have replaced home studies. Libraries across the country are tossing shelves of books to make room for computer terminals and Xbox stations. How often do millennials read materials that do not include hashtags?

Nerds are the new bookworms

Neither Internet nor television killed reading; it’s been on the decline for centuries, says Wise Bauer. Remember Reading is FUNdamental? The leading literacy nonprofit launched in 1966, offering access to books for millions of underprivileged children. Is their work even relevant anymore?

A 2004 National Endowment for the Arts study called Reading At Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, discovered an alarming decline in literature reading in the American population. Data collected over a 20-year span showed that only 47 percent of Americans read works of literature. That’s down from 54 percent in 1992 and 57 percent in 1982. The numbers are dismal across all ethnic, economic, and age groups. Another survey by Harris Interactive found the bedtime story is a thing of the past. Only a third of parents read to their kids regularly.

Are we becoming a nation of dummies?

“I’m surprised at the popularity of a book series marketed with the selling point being ‘for dummies,’” Wise Bauer said, referring to the popular reference book series, “For Dummies,” during her talk. “Are that many people identifying with that? Do they read the title – for Dummies – and think, ‘Yep, that’s for me.’”

Wise Bauer says most adults feel undereducated and inadequate. Part of the problem has been a dogged persistence in traditional passive classroom learning that failed to challenge or inspire young readers. “The classical model changes that,” Wise Bauer said. “It incorporates more reading instead of classroom learning.”

Wise Bauer reminisced about a bygone era when many men and women educated themselves through reading. Abraham Lincoln was an avid reader who advocated the power of wisdom gained through the written word. “The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is the man who’ll get me a book I ain’t read,” he is quoted saying. Wise Bauer also mentioned women of the 18th and 19th centuries, who were not usually afforded the opportunity to go to college, often bettered themselves through reading books like “The Improvement of the Mind” (Isaac Watts, 1810).

Reading is fundamental

“There are two types of reading,” Wise Bauer said, “a 10th grade reading level, where you are able to handle things like Stephen King and People Magazine; and then a higher level where you take on works like The Odyssey and Plato. These are tougher books to grasp but that’s normal.”

Wise Bauer pointed out three stages of understanding every reader should be working through. At the beginning, Level 1 reading skills are purely grammatical. “Just get through the book,” she said. “Understanding a third of a finished book is better than putting one down.”

Later, as skills improve, readers should be tasting and swallowing works. “If it’s fiction, ask yourself, ‘was I persuaded?’ If it’s a history book, were you transported?” Wise Bauer said of the Level 2 Logic Stage. Finally, a master reader should enter Level 3, or the Rhetoric stage of reading where, with the help of a book club or others, readers should be digesting materials and asking deeper questions. “What does the writer want me to do, to believe, or to experience?” she said. “Do I agree with the author? This is commonly referred to as Socratic dialogue.”

Experts point out the importance of creating a passion for reading early in childhood. Reading improves concentration while developing imagination and empathy. “It exercises the brain, which, like any organ, needs a workout to get stronger,” Wise Bauer said. Studies show avid readers improve their test scores. Not just in English, but in math and sciences as well.

Literacy rates are on the decline. Sixty-six percent of American fourth grade students scored “below proficient” on the 2013 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) reading test; 36 percent of eighth graders were below proficient, with 22 percent falling below a “basic” level.

Public schools in Wyoming have performed much better, however. NEAP data for 2015 has state students scoring 228 compared to a 221 nationwide average for fourth graders. Eighth grade students in Wyoming came in at a NAEP score of 269 for reading, compared to the U.S. average of 264.

Teton County School District No. 1 boasted lofty results as well. According to Tracy Poduska, the district’s director of teaching and learning, the PAWS March 2015 test results were encouraging. Sixty-six percent of fourth grade students landed at proficient or advanced (compared to the state average of 60 percent), while 59 percent of eighth graders were found reading at a proficient or advanced level (compared to the state average of 52 percent).

At the high school level, Jackson Hole High School seniors scored 23 in Reading on the 2014 ACT as compared to the national benchmark of 22. Math and science scores in Wyoming continue to languish, however, at all grade levels.

It’s never too late to pick up a book that can feed and awaken the mind, something to be considered across the age spectrum. Wise Bauer said adults should make dedicated space for self-education. “You need to create chasms of time to read. And guard your reading time,” she said. “Morning usually is better than night. Don’t open emails first. Create a place of no distractions. Start with just 20 minutes a day. And don’t worry about speed. In today’s world, we view slow as bad and fast as good. Reading should be a time for your mind and body to calm down.” PJH

About Jake Nichols

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