Why Do American Kids Hate Books?

February 12, 2008 · Posted in Teaching 2.0 · Comment 

A recent ComputerWorld article by Mike Elgan–Will Cell Phones Save Books?–provides some thought-provoking ideas about the general decline of reading in the United States. Elgan quotes a recent article from the New Yorker magazine:

Americans are losing not just the will to read but even the ability. According to the Department of Education, between 1992 and 2003 the average adult’s skill in reading prose slipped one point on a 500-point scale, and the proportion who were proficient — capable of such tasks as “comparing viewpoints in two editorials” — declined from 15% to 13.

Why is this? An article referenced by Elgan–Is A New Dark Age At Hand?–suggests that the process began long before the Internet and the World Wide Web conditioned us to brief explanations, sound bites and video clips. Radio and television began the process; politicians and marketeers exacerbated it, and the Web has made it even easier to avoid the need to read to get information.

So, is the lack of interest in reading a result of technology? If that were the case, you’d expect that the more technology a society has available to it, the less interest there would be in reading. Most countries are experiencing the same decline in reading as the United States, except for one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world–Japan. But why?

It turns out that cell phone novels are very popular in Japan. Cell phone novels are composed on cell phones, downloaded to other cell phones, and read on cell phones. Everyone in Japan has a cell phone, so a potential good read is always with you. Who writes them? Everyone, apparently. The No. 5 best-selling print book in Japan last year, according to the Times, was written first on a cell phone by a girl during her senior year in high school. Mainstream publishers are courting cell phone authors due to the immense popularity of their works.

Elgan believes this is why reading remains a popular activity in Japan. It’s interactive. You’re not simply a consumer of mass media controlled by a few publishing houses trying to make as much money as they can. You can easily choose what you want to read and, more importantly, you can contribute your own work to the system. If you’re a good writer, you’ll probably find an audience. Additionally, you will understand the process of creating literature and what makes good and bad literature.

Switch back to the US for a minute. How do we teach children to love reading? Assign them all the same novel? Make them write a book report? Take a test on the contents?

Could we do it any worse?

Listen to Any Good Books Lately?

October 29, 2007 · Posted in audio, Tools · 1 Comment 

Today’s post points to a variety of free online audio resources. These resources can provide valuable primary and supplemental tools for teaching and review as well as links to research materials for students.

LibriVox is the mother-of-all free audiobook resources on the ‘Net. Nearly 1000 titles are available, all searchable by title, author, category, and genre. Most of the classics are here as well as many modern and contemporary essays. Files are available in mp3 or ogg vorbis formats. Where available, links are provided to text versions (e.g., from Project Gutenberg) of the material. All recorded books are in the public domain in the US, and all are read by human readers. There is an RSS feed available to alert you when new materials are added, and you can even volunteer to be a reader.

Project Gutenberg Audio Books
Known mostly for its vast array of public domain print books, Project Gutenberg also offers many of its titles as audiobooks. Entries are read by human readers (or by synthesized voices; see below) and are available in many different audio formats, including mp3, m4b (iTunes/iPod), and ogg vorbis. Project Gutenberg no longer adds synthesized books to its library, preferring instead to use human readers, but they are migrating to an “on demand” service for delivering synthesized text to visually-impaired individuals. My favorite feature of PG is the full-text search capabilities, allowing the reader to search for occurrences of words or phrases within the texts themselves. Of course, PG also supports searching by author, title, etc.

Free Classic Audiobooks
This site offers a limited range of titles (around 60), but the offerings are compelling–from Huckleberry Finn to Alice in Wonderland to Shakespeare’s Sonnets to Notes from the Underground to the 911 Commission Report. Roughly half are read by humans; the remaining titles using an “advanced” synthesized speech that is quite understandable. All titles are available in mp3 format and in m4b format for iPod or iTunes. Books are segmented into chapters for easier downloading or downloading of specific chapters (great for review purposes). I love throwing these on my iPod for long car rides. They also make great review items for high school British and American literature classes.

This web site is a portal to thousands of online books, lectures, podcasts, and videos on a wide variety of topics. Some are for purchase, but LearnOutLoud offers a directory of hundreds of free audio and video resources arranged by topic, including Arts, Literature, Science, and Language. (Scroll down the page to find the free directory.) Items in a topic can be sorted in several ways, including alphabetically, by author, or by title popularity.