Students Don’t Read and Don’t Know Where to Start

June 13, 2019

“The problem of our age is the proper administration of wealth, that the ties of brotherhood may still bind the rich and the poor in harmonious relationship. The conditions of human life have not only been changed but revolutionized, within the past few hundred years. In former years there was little difference between the dwelling, dress, food, and environment of the chief and those of his retainers….the contrast between the palace of the millionaire and the cottage of the laborer with us to-day measures the change which has come with civilization. This change, however, is not to be deplored, but welcomed as highly beneficial.”

Say, hypothetically, your student was faced with the above passage from Andrew Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth, and was asked not only to identify “the main point about the disadvantages of the modern economic system,” but also to “provide the best evidence” to backup their answer. Would they be able to?

You might be thinking that the thought exercise above is unfair given that you don’t have the answer choices in front of you.  But the fact of the matter is that any passage written in 1889 is going to be intimidating. Even the strongest readers are going to have to slow down, use context clues to interpret outdated language, and approach each sentence deliberately. Some students might even use their knowledge of Andrew Carnegie and the industrial era from history class to better navigate the passage. Ultimately, some students are going to finish the passage with a good understanding of Carnegie’s view point and strong sense of the passage’s purpose. But a lot of students aren’t.

You might be thinking, well, what if my student struggles with reading. How can they develop their abilities so that they are able to attack a passage like Carnegie’s? It’s no secret among test prep companies that the reading section is the most difficult section to budge because it tests a more holistic skill set. However, parents tend to have mismatched expectations when it comes to test prep for the reading section. Improvements on the reading section don’t come in a reliably linear fashion, which is more common for the other concept-based sections.  This fact entails a frustrating reality for avoidant readers: they will have to work tirelessly to improve their score or may fail to improve entirely. After all, even the best test prep tutors can’t make up for a decade of neglecting to read challenging texts.

A closer look at the school system reveals why high school students stop reading independently. From a young age, there is a constant feedback loop in schools that reinforces students to identify themselves as either “bad” or “good” readers (think reading groups or reading aloud during class). By the time a student is in middle school, they might be assigned 10 books to read a year.  For a student who reads these books and nothing else, their reading skills will completely plateau. It’s a shame: studies show that only fifteen minutes a day of independent reading accelerates one’s reading growth; however, 54% of all students read less than fifteen minutes a day.  

In this day and age, technology also contributes to this aversion to reading. Teenagers are exposed to vastly different forms of entertainment in a matter of seconds. Why, if they already consider themselves to be bad readers, would they spend their free time thoroughly understanding a passage by Susan B. Anthony, for example?

With SmartyPrep, our fully gamified test prep app, students can still enjoy the stimulation of social technology while honing in on their reading skills. The “reading in context” game and the matching for high frequency words game help develop fundamental reading skills while also creating a venue for friendly competition among peers. Mastering the reading section isn’t about learning random reading tricks and gaming tactics, but about initiating a fundamental restructuring so that a student learns to be a master reader in their everyday life, not just a master of standardized tests.  

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