Teenagers and reading

With literacy rates for young adults now higher than at any other time - 98 to 100 per cent in nearly all European countries and rapidly increasing in the developing world - it seems incongruous that there should be so much concern that teenagers are not reading as much as they used to. And yet, it’s still a major issue in education throughout the developed world. But the concern isn’t really about whether teens can read or not, but more about what they are reading and how much.

Extensive reading

When we talk about teenagers not reading we are really talking about extensive reading, where reading is undertaken voluntarily and purely for pleasure or entertainment; where the texts are usually books and the reading happens regularly for extended periods. The benefits of extensive reading are well known. It can lead to faster reading speed and greater ability to process texts. It enhances general language competence as well as knowledge about the world. It also helps to make the reader a better writer by giving them massive amounts of input on usage and vocabulary.

It would be reasonable to assume that these benefits are transferable when it comes to learning foreign languages, but there are a number of features of extensive reading that make it particularly difficult for teachers to use it in the language classroom. Apart from limited availability of suitable texts, extensive reading is also usually a solitary activity which (ideally) takes up long periods of time. The reader chooses what they are going to read and there are no tests or exams involved. In fact any attempts to test or measure what students are reading would be likely to put them off reading as it would look too much like  work and lose its appeal.

It may, however, be a misconception that teenagers aren’t reading as much these days. Stephen Krashen cites numerous studies that seem to indicate that teenagers are, if anything, reading more than in the past, if we include digital media in the reckoning. He goes on to mention reports going back as far as the 19th century on the appalling state of young adult literacy. If these reports and current concerns are to be believed, things have been getting steadily worse since then. You could reasonably expect that by now we should all be illiterate!

It’s clear that a large number of teenagers are reading books. In fact, young adult fiction is a multimillion pound industry these days. A brief look at the top 100 sellers at a well-known online bookshop reveals quite a healthy presence of books for teenagers. And interestingly enough, the first ebook to reach a million sales was The Hunger Games, a book aimed at 12 year olds and above. And as we know the first author in history to become a billionaire from her writing (no need for names here!) did this with books for children and teenagers. It’s also worth noting the post-Potter tendency for longer and longer books for young readers. If we want to answer the question of what gets teens reading, perhaps we should take a look at what’s so appealing about the most successful books for teenagers.

Approaching adult themes
Perhaps the two most popular fictional series for young adults in recent years have been The Hunger Games trilogy and The Twilight Saga. They have been translated successfully into all the major languages so it’s clear that they have a universal appeal. They may appear to be very different from each other on the surface: the one being set in a futuristic dystopia while the other, although set in the contemporary world is a tale of rival gangs of vampires and werewolves. But they share a number of important themes in common. They are both works of fantasy. They both deal with relationships in the form of a love triangle. Violence and death and all of the emotional and moral conundrums therein are also central plot themes. These themes crop up again and again in young adult fiction. The prevalence of fantasy is easy to understand - successful books need to entertain after all. Vampires, werewolves and wizards may come and go according to fashion. But the human realities of surviving relationships, being different, coping with hardship, violence and even death are here to stay.  

Looking at the top ten teen books being sold online at the moment, six fall into the science fiction/fantasy genre, two are set in futuristic dystopias. Four have romance as plot elements, while two deal with the issue of rape. It should come as no surprise that these themes have so much appeal to teenagers who are themselves coming to grips with issues surrounding relationships, sex, violence, and being different themselves, as they near adulthood. Books offer them a safe place to explore these ideas as they try and work out their own beliefs and how they fit in with the world around them.

Extensive reading in the EFL classroom: a personal experience
All very well and good, but how could this be made to work in the English language classroom? Most teachers would feel uncomfortable tackling these difficult subjects with students and in some countries it would be impossible to even think of doing it. Also, apart from the near impossible task of finding books that appeal to all students, the cost of the books themselves and lack of time available, it’s extremely difficult to link extensive reading to syllabus demands and exams. There’s also the question of what you would actually do with the books.

I’ve only ever attempted to cover a non-adapted book in my own teaching once, when a class of 14/15 year olds asked me if we could read Harry Potter in class. This was in 2000, when the boy wizard was becoming internationally famous. At the time I was running the British Council Young Learners’ Library in Barcelona and was very keen to promote reading with classes. I decided to give it a go. We read parts of the book in class and I set parts for homework. It involved a huge amount of work on my part trying to link with the syllabus and write accompanying materials. Although it was very enjoyable for (nearly) everyone, it took a long time to get through the book and it wasn’t a success from the point of view of the existing syllabus. We still had to take the standard exams and the results were not very encouraging. However, the level of interest and motivation in the class was very high throughout the year.

Preparing for Extensive Reading
A good starting point for a teacher who would like to get their teens reading either at home or in class is LearnEnglish Teens.

The Short stories & poems section on LearnEnglish Teens includes a selection of short stories and poems written by British authors. They're great reading practice for higher levels. You’ll also find online activities and worksheets to download and print.

The stories and articles in Improve your reading are written at three different levels of English, so you can choose one that is perfect for your learners. This section includes online activities as well as printable worksheets.

The Magazine section is written especially for teenagers by young people from the UK. For students who want to keep up to date with the latest fashions, music or trends, this is the place to be.

Learners can scroll down to the discussion question under each text in the reading sections on LearnEnglish Teens to read comments from students around the world. English learners aged between 13 and 17 can sign up for a free account and can write their comments to be published on the site.

While it may not be possible or even desirable to work with a novel in class, we can still promote extensive reading in other ways. I usually make a point of finding out what students are reading and I have noticed again and again that the better students are often those who are avid readers in their first language. It’s well worth drawing their attention to this. Also, the more knowledge the teacher has about teen literature the better. If you’ve read the books yourself it’s much  easier to make recommendations. However, this should be handled carefully though as teenagers may be more likely to listen to each other than the teacher. Fortunately, this isn’t a problem nowadays as there are thousands of teenage video bloggers reviewing books on YouTube. We’re also fortunate nowadays to have such a wealth of short stories and articles available on the internet. Being able to read a story in a foreign language can certainly whet the appetite for more. And with so many stories and novels that can be accessed via tablets and handheld devices, the lack of appeal that paper books might have for our digital natives is no longer an excuse!

By Brendan Dunne

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