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Are teenagers really reluctant readers?

Teenage boy on laptop and phoneAhead of her talk at IATEFL 2011 in Brighton entitled ‘Getting students into extensive reading painlessly: A threefold solution’, Sue Parminter, series co-editor of the Dominoes Readers series, considers how to get today’s tech-savvy teenagers reading books.

What do you take with you when you travel alone by plane? I have a hunch the answer to this question reveals lots about us. I never get on even a short-haul flight without a book to read: I guess having a paperback in my hand also reassures me that I won’t need to bury my nose in the in-flight magazine in order to escape from tedious conversations with over-chatty people who might be in the seats next to mine. When my kids were young, our in-flight bags invariably bulged with colouring books and crayons, replaced – as the kids aged – by hand-held computer game consoles, and latterly by iPods, crammed to bursting with music and films.

A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting on a plane with a book in my hands, letting my thoughts drift, when my pleasant daydreams were rudely interrupted by a boy of about thirteen moaning to his parents in the row behind mine. He’d been perfectly happy when I’d followed them up the stairs onto the plane, earphone attached to his android mobile, tapping out text on the screen faster than I can type on a regular computer keyboard. The cause of his sudden fury was the safety instruction to turn off all electronic equipment, forcing him to enter into reluctant, monosyllabic conversation with his parents while the plane taxied and took off.

His reaction brought home to me the parallels between my addiction to words on a paper page and a teenager’s dependence on the small screen. Although I find it fascinating to play with an iPad, turning digital pages at the swipe of a finger and marvelling at how ‘real’ they look, I’m a bit too old to transfer my passion for paper text to the screen version. For me, the traditional bookworm, it’s a technological gulf as hard to cross as it must be for ‘digital natives’ to feel passionate about reading books, especially school books in a language not their own.

It is really vital – I feel – for us English language teachers not to underestimate how wide this ‘digital native-print native’ divide is, and how much we need to do in order to bridge it.  But there’s one aspect of the small LCD screens that have invaded our world in recent years that we can also be grateful for. Ten years ago, studies of how teenagers spent their time shocked us when they itemized all the hours spent in front of television sets. Nowadays the balance has tilted away from the passive watching of larger screens to interacting in various ways with smaller ones, and this quantum shift towards interactivity makes a significant difference.

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