Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Literacy and Publishing

In recent years, we have heard a great deal about the decline in publishing. We see this not just in the book publishing industry but also in the newspaper industry. Newspapers are collapsing in record numbers. Over and over we hear numerous economic theories as to why publishers are simply selling less books. We hear people complain about the price of manufacturing the product. We hear people complain about the reduction in advertising. You name it, we hear it.

There is, unfortunately, another side that I don't think we stop and think about. We have to consider the literacy of the general public. I started thinking about this yesterday and it really struck me as one of the reasons that I think we are ignoring. After 20 years in the classroom and extensive work in the field of literacy, I finally realized it was time to blend these two worlds and see what I came up with. Unfortunately, the vision I see is extremely worrying to me.

Students are just not reading as much as they did in the past. Even when they are reading, the material the students are reading is declining in terms of the level. We refer to this as the "readability level." High school textbooks, for example, are often set for a readability level as low as 6th grade. Even at the college level, we see readability levels as low as that. If you have children in school, take a look at their textbooks. Today, the books look far different from earlier versions of textbooks. More graphics, less writing. Big words.

Even the type of questions and the placement of the questions for the chapters have changed. In the past, the questions were really deeper questions. Sure, there were some basic factual questions, but in the end there were more critical thinking questions. Today, you find more personal reflection questions and less in depth ones. Along the same lines, the questions happen at a higher frequency. Instead of the end of the chapter questions, we are now moving to questions every 2-3 pages.

Why is the frequency an issue? The students can't remember the material past a small amount of pages. (Now think about the books we are reading in fiction... smaller chapter).

Even the emphasis on reading has shifted in schools (and I should note this has been going on since the early 90's). Students read a smaller amount of novels in the class. Students are even told what level of book they should be reading and needless to say, because the readability levels of the books have declined, the books are really low level.

Now let's talk about adults. We too want things short and simple. If we read the newspaper, we scan it for the headlines we want to read and ignore the rest. Even then, we often never read the entire article. Even technology like Twitter reduces how much we have to read (140 characters only??) Emails are shorter, we live for texting?

What about the books we read. I hear time and time again that publishers want "fast" stories. Reduce the narration, go straight to dialogue and keep the pace moving. Ugh, it reminds me of those action movies my father-in-law loves. Little plot and all action. Yes, I know there are writers out there trying to do better, but there is a shift and we cannot ignore it. I will have to say, I was excited to hear that people at BEA were trying to take the books the other direction though. We'll have to wait and see about that one.

Let's face it. Even as adults, we find it hard to model what we want to see in our kids. We find it hard to model this behavior that we want to see and often complain is not out there.

Sure, the publishing industry is changing. We are apparently moving to more and more technology, but as I see it, I really do think things are going to change more and maybe in a direction that we don't want to see. As I look at publishing, I look at our kids in school. I look at my 2nd and 4th grader and see what they are reading. Fortunately for us, our kids love reading and are in a literate home, but I see the emphasis on reading and it scares me.

If we want to see the publishing industry continue then we need to start early.



  1. Hi Scott: I usually just lurk here as I very much enjoy your blog. But I thought I'd "de-lurk" today to comment. I just had a daughter graduate from high school this year, and while I'll take nothing away from her intelligence, (she is my child after all!) the level of books that were required reading for high school seniors was appalling. Books that I would have been reading in the 5th and 6th grades. Of course, I loved to read, which does help. But, many of these student are ill prepared for college. In fact, even my own kids never, NEVER, yes, you are reading this correctly, never had to write a book report. All of their reading comprehension skills were computer based multiple choice tests. This is really going to hurt when they have to write a thesis! I couldn't agree more with your analysis of the decline of the American reading level. Perhaps, if we allowed teachers to teach, instead of having them "teach to the state test", our students would be much better off. Thanks for a great blog. (returning to lurk mode)

  2. I agree with everything you have said, but see no chance this will turn around. As I've said before, I remain amazed at the emerging speech patterns of adults, which resemble nothing so much as the, " I don't know... I'm not sure...nothing I could possibly say would matter to anyone. I'm just a kid and therefore know nothing...," and on and on, like, you know, I mean, this is the way that very young children speak as they begin to join the world of educated adults. Fascinating. NOT good or bad, just completely fascinating. It's like talking to a sponge. After listening to twenty qualifiers in each sentence, I can't figure out WHAT they are trying to say.
    Add to this computer-speak, the reduction of a sentence to a few phonetically-spelled words, and the result is, yes! A three year old attempting to speak to an adult. Good luck.
    And it is spreading. I hold out little hope for the success of books on line, because I who love reading cannot make it through ONE page on line. I want headlines, as in Google-speak. An actual book is a far different matter. And if it is like that for me...
    Ah well, life is change, and there's no fighting it. So, like, you know, I mean...I'm a little bit...don't quote me...going to join the trend, and like be part of this very funny new world. As for books on line saving the bacon, forget it. Like way, way, way, too much work for this kid. The inner child emerges triumphant. It's like much more fun anyway.

  3. Hi Scott, thanks for the thought-provoking post, which I caught on Twitter. The last few times I've been to the bookstore, I've been stunned at the number of Manga shelves. Even classics are being reissued in Manga style. On the plus side, however, the cartoon format is a gateway for less sophisticated readers to fall in love with a story and then go to the author's original books to satisfy a new appetite. I deliberately used this process to help my hyperactive son catch the reading bug, and now, at twelve years old, he regularly reads military histories shelved in the adult sections. Still, the trends you describe are disturbing.

  4. Scott, I've thought about this often, and I definitely agree. I'm a junior in high school and I've been reading my entire life.

    English classes in high school are indeed turning into a joke; I've been passing our Advanced Placement classes without any trouble due to the incredibly low grading scales and standards both writing- and reading comprehension-wise. I haven't learned anything new. Sometimes I feel as if I've regressed.

    The trends are absolutely there and they are rising at incredible rates. It worries me that it is so difficult to break into publishing and that books are turning into more complex commodities (book marketing and publicity, interactive books, etc.) for the purpose of selling them.

    It's scary, but it's not going to stop.

    Thanks for the post.