This digital world has a few tricks. It’s fast, lightning quick, bringing rewards with a few quick clicks. We skim and skip, casting for the tantalising bits. And if it ain’t got us hooked real quick, we give it the flick.
And this is the world where a large number of our teens are experiencing the only reading they will commit to for pleasure.
There is much to be lost if we give up on the idea that reading deeply matters. We need to make sure our young people find the time to be still, and to ensure they are still reading. We risk a lot if we stop fostering a culture where deep reading matters.
Researchers tell us that many readers today use an F or Z pattern when reading. They sample the first line, then word-spot through the rest of the text. This ‘text hopping’ means the reader has less time to engage in deep reading processes. And, as cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf writes in her 2018 book Reader, Come Home, these are the very processes which help us to develop empathy, to perceive beauty and to create thoughts of the reader’s own. If skimming becomes the new norm, we short-circuit our ability to process information and make inferences in our reading. We lose the ability to make critical analysis, to make reflections and to develop empathy. When we consider that these are the core elements of a democracy, Wolf reminds us of the problems which can arise if we give up. She advocates the fostering of a ‘bi-literate reading brain’, capable of the deepest forms of thought in either digital or traditional mediums. She reminds us of the need to create the ability to “go beyond our present glut of information to reach the knowledge and wisdom necessary to sustain a good society”.
When we consider the potential loss of intellectual and affective processes, we have a responsibility to ensure our teens are still reading. Developing a culture of deep reading is something we can all be actively involved in. As parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents, family friends, teachers, librarians, counsellors and medical practitioners, advocating reading is a way of ensuring our teens can be the best selves they are capable of.
Our culture of quick clicks also brings a toll on our physical health and well-being. Fast information brings fast demands. Constant connectivity brings constant availability. The act of sitting still to read is in itself a commitment to ‘be in the moment’. Readers must quell racing thoughts, stop rushing from one task to the next, and pause to face the page. It is a slow act. Plots plod. Characters unfold. We must wait. It is an act of faith in a slow unravelling – faith that with patience and time, all will be revealed. More than ever, our teens need moments to pause. To sit. To be still. And to be in the moment, in a story.
Books also force us to face the difficult. For a moment in time, we climb into another person’s shoes and feel. They remind us what it is to be human. They make us look truth in the face, so we do not turn away. They provide a way of facing adversity, allowing us to see how another overcomes issues we may be confronting. At a time of life when young adults are developing independence, stories can remind them that ‘you are not alone’.
Connection is the key to happy and healthy human relationships. After decades of teaching, I have no doubt that the best teachers are those who are taught by their students. Books allow us to connect with our teens. They are a way for us to listen to the voices which matter to them. We can learn when we are open and willing to turn the page on what we view as ‘good reads’ and the ‘best books’. Of course, there are many great books we want to inspire our teens to read. But we must also listen and learn. We can be inspired when we recognise the voices which matter most to our young people today. The YA genre is vibrant and relevant, and teeming with thought-provoking and riveting fiction. It is filled with feisty characters who aren’t about to back down. It makes us look at gender transitioning, systemic racism, gender inequality, sexuality and harassment, reminding us how important it is to hear diverse voices. And to hear the voices which matter most to our teens.
The world beyond the screen speaks volumes. In our community hubs, our hospitals, our doctors’ offices and our classrooms, let books sit front and centre. Let our youth see that reading deeply matters. Let’s make sure we have shelves with relevant, enticing reads. Let’s start a conversation, to show that characters and narratives matter. Let’s meet them on-screen as well, creating platforms or connections where they can engage in reading and validate this pursuit online. Let’s do all we can to keep our teens still and reading, and still reading, to be the best selves they can be.
Samantha Montgomerie is a poet and children’s author who lives in Dunedin. She has recently finished her first YA manuscript. She has worked for over twenty years as an English teacher, and is a passionate advocate of keeping teens reading.