Opinion: Reading skills are eroding, but we’re not on same page on solution

A retired English professor says his colleagues in academia have long complained about the erosion of reading comprehension skills in their students.  (Dreamstime/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

A retired English professor says his colleagues in academia have long complained about the erosion of reading comprehension skills in their students. (Dreamstime/TNS)

It sometimes seems as if we’re no longer capable of solving problems in this country, and nowhere is that more apparent than in education. One reason for this may be that although students, parents, teachers, administrators, school boards and state legislatures all have a role to play, they are seldom on the same page.

That’s why an article published this week in the Chronicle of Higher Education had me experiencing deja vu because the problems facing education in this country are anything but new.

Rick Diguette

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The main issue raised by Beth McMurtrie in her Chronicle article “Is this the end of reading?” concerns the decline in the average college student’s ability to complete and comprehend reading assignments. Professors in all disciplines have been reporting on this for years, and, while well-intentioned people seem to think they know why this is happening, I’ve yet to see any concerted or comprehensive efforts to address it.

I also know that the response of most professors has been a reduction in the amount of reading they require of their students. Some of us also decided quite some time ago that unless we provided students with a “study guide,” the reading simply would not get done.

I should point out I started doing that well before COVID-19. I mention this only because the pandemic has become a convenient catchall for the ills we’re either unwilling or unable to address and fix.

Though there is no question the pandemic’s aftereffects are still being felt, and not just in education, that fallback position cannot be allowed to prevent us from moving forward. Identifying COVID-19 as a contributing factor to problems in education can be viewed as a starting point, but it’s only one starting point among many others, including ill-advised K-12 reading instruction strategies, excessive student cellphone use and the unequal provision of educational resources.

Being something of an optimist, I hope an article in the influential Chronicle of Higher Education could serve as a rallying cry for everyone, but I know it won’t. That’s because there is no consensus about how to educate our young people and what steps must be taken to accomplish that.

And quite often ideas put forward in that regard are the work of people holding or running for public office who, I might add, are typically much better at getting attention on social media than they are at identifying and solving real problems.

Speaking as a former English professor, I have no doubt the ability to read and comprehend the written word is an indispensable skill, whether you plan to attend college or not, and if you do, no matter what you choose to study. Your English professors will thank you, but so will those who teach you math, economics, biology and computer science.

Reading is a skill, the attainment of which every student should develop, every parent should encourage, every teacher should emphasize, every administrator should support and every school board member and legislator respect.

Rick Diguette is a local writer and retired college professor.