Where have all the Readers Gone?

Renée Fuller, Ph.D.

Copyright © 2006 by Renée Fuller

     Something happened with that respected morning tradition; the reading of in-depth reports by The New York Times, The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal. Early each day many of us faithfully read the dispatches sent by journalists stationed all over the globe informing us about the latest world news. But then things began to change.

     The New York Times let 500 of its news staff go. Similar cutbacks had previously taken place in major newsrooms throughout the country. Why? The presumed explanation: reduced circulation, ergo fewer readers, hence less advertising revenue. But why are there fewer readers of newspapers as well as of books when the number of college graduates has increased dramatically? And why are the book and newspaper readers that continue to exist heavily weighted toward middle age and older groups when it is the younger population that has the greater number of graduate school and college graduates? According to the statistics only a third of today's newspaper subscribers are under the age of 40 to 45. This despite the increased number of advanced degrees in the younger age groups.

     The usual explanation is that the younger generations are getting their news from the TV and through the Internet. That would seem like a logical assumption. But are these non-book and newspaper readers actually getting in-depth information coverage from the more recent popular media, or is there another reason for the reduced readership of in-depth reading material?

     There are indications that the latter may indeed be the case. One such indication comes from a leading newspaper in a neighboring New England state. Its management decided to handle their reduced circulation by letting go their excellent Sunday editor noted for emphasizing in-depth reporting. The directors had come to the conclusion that to remain viable they would have to restrict their reportage to short snappy stories, easy for readers to grasp - requiring a minimum of reading. No more of those in-depth articles that demand "superior" reading comprehension. And yet this particular New England state has had a major influx of younger highly educated (college and beyond) technocrats. Again, the explanation for the lack of readers is that although highly educated, this group is spending what used to be book and newspaper reading time primarily in front of the TV or the computer. But why then short snappy stories requiring less reading comprehension if that is the whole or even the real reason for the lack of in-depth reading. Has something else happened?

     Several decades ago the claim that more people are getting their in-depth news coverage from the electronic media would have struck me as a logical explanation for the reduced readership of books and newspapers. But that was before our research findings with institutionalized retarded patients produced repeated and unexpected results. Not only did we successfully teach severely retarded institutionalized patients to read with comprehension, but these students enjoyed and sought out opportunities to read.

     One striking demonstration of this was apparent in the Psychology Department waiting room. There, seated reading the Baltimore Sun, Popular Mechanics or Vanity Fair with total absorption would be some of our retarded subjects. Meanwhile, also seated in the waiting room, staring into space, were the aides or social workers who had brought the patients. The contrast was startling. Visitors to the department who didn't know who was who on several occasions concluded that the aide or social worker was the retarded patient. Were the patients just pretending – just showing off? From their obvious enjoyment and chatter about what they had just found out, what they had just learned, it was evident that the patients knew and understood what they were reading. But why were the aides and the more educated social workers not reading?

     And how was it possible for severely retarded patients to show an intellectual capacity and interest when according to their IQs this should have been out of their reach? Such results are all the more unexpected when at the same time more and more of our normal and superior intellectually endowed have lost interest and perhaps even the ability to read in-depth material. What was it that the retarded patients had learned and experienced that made it possible for them to read with genuine understanding and above all eager enjoyment?

     Fred, one of our institutionalized severely retarded patients went out of his way trying to explain to me what had happened. At the time I had difficulty grasping what he was telling me – that he had figured out what had made his intellectual breakthrough possible. Fred's explanation was so contrary to accepted intelligence theory, which I as a psychologist had accepted as given fact, that I all but ignored it. Years later, Morris, an adult illiterate of normal intelligence, also took me aside and like Fred described how having been taught to read with these particular books had changed him intellectually. He considered the cognitive transformation he was experiencing as a quantum intellectual leap after having spent half a lifetime as an illiterate.

     By this time it was easier for me to accept Morris' explanation because by this time we had amassed extensive data that quantified the cognitive changes in our students following reading intervention. The data demonstrated that intelligence theory failed to hold up when the alternative Ball-Stick-Bird method was used. Although the reading system had been intended for superior dyslexics, results with diverse groups, including the severely retarded, showed that IQ scores can be made to lose their predictive validity when this alternative teaching approach is used.

     Finally, convinced by the evidence, I listened to the explanations coming from the students and began to try to make sense out of our research results. What the students were explaining, and the data corroborated, was that the novel reading system had built on what they had already learned as toddlers: how words are put together to tell a story. And by presenting reading as a visual version of story telling it becomes surprisingly easy to transfer this previously learned auditory proficiency to the visual modality.

     The reading system's visual presentation of story telling commences with the first reading lesson. This is accomplished by showing how with just four letters, words can be built that begin an exciting science fiction story. In this way actual reading starts with the first lesson. By learning to read stories (e.g. contextual material) even before having learned most of the alphabet, the system recapitulates the piecemeal way language had been learned in earlier years.

     The first two books of the system tell the story of Vad of Mars, who has rockets for feet, primarily with nouns, and with verbs in simple present and past tenses thereby further recapitulating early language learning. Only gradually are adjectives and adverbs added. As the books and the stories progress the more advanced parts of speech make their appearance.

     It was apparent from the data, which recorded the unexpected effectiveness of this approach that the system had not only tapped into how language is learned. It had also, albeit unintentionally, tapped into a basic cognitive structure. Over the millennia the elaboration of this basic cognitive structure has been responsible for the development of our human languages, and in effect functions as a cognitive engram. I have given this cognitive engram the name of story-engram.

     In their simplest form, story engrams are composed with just a noun and an implied verb. As children become more proficient in the use of language, verbs make their appearance describing what the noun does and their story engrams become elaborated and gradually more complicated. With further cognitive development adjectives, adverbs and conditional verb tenses are added thereby further explicating the cognitive story-engram unit.

     When the reading system was initially created I had no awareness of the cognitive development of the story engram. My reasoning for the simple noun-verb presentation for beginning readers was to facilitate story reading, and to give entertainment payoff starting with the first lesson. The theorizing and explanations followed only after we had collected extensive data on the unexpectedly positive results.

     On the emotional level, the effect of tapping into and taking advantage of the students' auditory understanding of stories was that the visual presentation of stories had a familiar feel. It took the mystery and fear out of learning to read. In addition the students had the exciting and reassuring experience of realizing that they had already become readers during the first lesson. And so important, they came to realize that reading itself can be an exhilarating enterprise because it can tell you marvelous stories.

     And how about unfamiliar words? Characteristic of our students was the way they reveled in reading words that they had not known existed. Again and again we were told that these new words "help you think." Morris, the adult illiterate of normal intelligence told me, as many such illiterates have told me since, that after exposure to unknown words in the reading books they now repeatedly came across these new words, and the thoughts they generated. Amazed, they described how previously they had been unaware of the existence of these words and the ideas they connoted.

     After years of amassing these unexpected research findings it became evident that real literacy is not simply a matter of knowing how to read words – how to decode them. Rather, real literacy means the ability to follow a story, and to comprehend its implications. That is what makes real literacy mind expanding. It is this capability that we found increases vocabulary and the ideas the new vocabulary imply, thereby furthering cognitive development. The human acquisition of language represents the truly powerful thinking tool of our species. Historically, the advent of literacy has been a powerful language and thereby intellect augmenting invention.

     So "where have all those readers gone."

     I first became aware of the widespread problem of the disappearing readers some years ago. It was while giving a workshop to a group of reading teachers most of whom had earned Masters degrees in reading. Toward the end of the workshop one of the teachers said mournfully, looking at the books of the novel reading system, "If I'd been taught reading this way, I'd be reading books now." To my shocked astonishment the rest of the teachers nodded in agreement. The room was filled with sadness about what they had missed, and were still missing.

     How could this be? How is it possible for institutionalized retarded people to enjoy fairly advanced reading material when many Masters level teachers do not? And how about the technocrats who according to our prominent New England newspaper have to be given snappy, easy to read stories in order to entice them to buy the newspaper. Has the dumbing down of reading material become a modern reality? So why have all those disappearing readers gone to the new media, where in-depth reading is not required? How did this come to pass?

     Comparing the results of our retarded students with the test results from most of today's schools, the answer becomes all too apparent. When reading is taught using the present drill methods, beginning by first drilling for alphabet recognition, then phonemic awareness, followed by the sounding out of words (instead of word building), a surprising number of students fail in learning to read. Many more fail in gaining the level of mastery that makes in-depth reading comprehension an easy or even possible task. We see this in many high school graduates who, despite having dutifully filled out numerous drill workbooks during elementary school reading classes, often taught by Master's level reading teachers, still have difficulty handling advanced reading material. Nor is it unusual for college professors to complain that a surprising number of their students have difficulty in writing a simple composition and in comprehending their reading assignments. On the economic front, employers complain of the increasing number of high school graduates who perform as "functional illiterates."

     Our severely retarded successful students had a happy learning-to-read experience. Alas, that is contrary to the experience of most students in today's schools where learning to read has frequently become a big, uncomfortable, often scary, production. The regimented drills of bits of information which children often spend years memorizing frequently fail in leading to actual reading. Those who fail to connect the bits of information into words and sentences, thereby becoming readers, are usually diagnosed as learning disabled or dyslexic, etc. These diagnoses insure a steady stream of clients for programs that require lengthy teacher training leading to certification as Special Ed teachers. These Special Ed programs have required an increasing amount of funding leading to ever-higher local real estate taxes. Even many of the children who have become fluent decoders with today's drill methods often end up as reluctant readers. Their introductory experience into literacy with its drill routines became a turn-off experience. They are like the teacher who said, "If I had been taught reading with these books, I'd be reading books now." When people have difficulties with in-depth reading comprehension they tend to avoid intellectually stimulating reading material.

     And that is a serious loss. There is something unique about literacy's effect on cognitive functioning. It encourages the comprehension of complicated ideas. Whereas TV programs and computer games can be delightfully clever, they tend to fail in enhancing true analytical thinking and creativity. Without in-depth reading we are in danger of a progressive dumbing down of the electorate.

     The ancient Hebrews who made the ability to read the Torah a requirement for the Barmizvah were evidently aware that true literacy enhances reasoning and analytical creativity. Also aware of the importance of literacy were the parents of a Head Start reading program in Milwaukee. They celebrated the success of the program by singing, "We have overcome, today."

     Yes, we can bring back our disappearing readers.

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© 2002 Renée Fuller
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