College Students Basically Don’t Know How to Read Anymore

On Read

It's not just you — college students are having trouble reading, too, and that's major cause for concern.

In an editorial for Slate, Adam Kotsko, an assistant professor at Illinois' North Central College, said that over the past five years — four of which, of course, have been dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath — he and a lot of his colleagues have noticed that their students are really, really reticent to do the reading.

"For most of my career, I assigned around 30 pages of reading per class meeting as a baseline expectation," Kotsko, whose classes largely include humanities and philosophy instruction, writes. "Now students are intimidated by anything over 10 pages and seem to walk away from readings of as little as 20 pages with no real understanding."

While it's no secret that there's been a "very real learning loss" as a result of the COVID lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, there seems to be something much worse afoot, the author and educator muses.

"Not only did the marked decline in reading resilience start before the pandemic, but the students I am seeing would have already been in high school during the school closures," Kotsko explains. "Hence they would be better equipped to get something out of the online format and, more importantly, their basic reading competence would have already been established."

As he and his fellow teachers discuss the issue amongst themselves — and, at times, in trade publications — including how they're spending more and more time explaining "basic" concepts, the question remains: what gives?

Core Cause

The likely culprits aside from early pandemic school closures, Kotsko explains, are pretty evidence: smartphones becoming the main medium for reading and the "teach-to-test" style of pedagogy that has for decades now dominated primary and secondary education.

Add in teaching fads like the "balanced literacy" movement that majorly de-emphasized phonics education in favor of reading comprehension — which can, of course, be measured by standardized tests — has led to a "vibes-based literacy," as the NCC assistant professor and others call it, in which students are not instructed to sound out word pronunciation anymore.

"Even aside from the impact of smartphones," Kotsko writes, "their experience of reading is constantly interrupted by their intentionally cultivated inability to process unfamiliar words."

Perhaps the most jarring source of the issue, however, is teachers' acquiescence to it by assigning shorter excerpts in yet another means of teaching for standardized tests — and not, you know, for education and enrichment.

"I have to think that we can, at the very least, stop actively preventing young people from developing the ability to follow extended narratives and arguments in the classroom," the impassioned assistant professor exclaims. "Regardless of their profession or ultimate educational level, they will need those skills."

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