Learning to Read

February 20, 2024

Adam Kostko, a humanities professor at a liberal arts college, argues in his article “The Loss of Things I Took for Granted,” what he considers to be a crisis of literacy amongst today’s college students. Kostko is careful to describe the crisis as not the fault of students but distributors of literacy education.
Specifically Kotsko calls attention to students’ alleged inability to gain meaning from readings and even understand the words within reading themselves. Recalling anecdotes from the classroom, Kostko explains that students find even short readings to be “intimidating.” So too, according to Kostko, students struggle to read at all, let alone read and understand. 

As a current student, who reads what I would consider to be 20-60 pages on average for each class, I appreciate that Kotsko understands the importance of reading prior to class, and its significance to college students’ education. However, I disagree with Kotsko on a few points. 

Firstly, I disagree that students find ten pages or more to be intimidating. Certainly, I’ve heard students complain about reading loads but I have yet to meet a student who does not believe in their ability to read or read well. Second, I find that Kotsko’s definition of meaning in reading is somewhat narrow. What is considered meaning in the humanities, is different in languages, or STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). To fail to address such differences means that the reality of student experiences might have been overlooked. 

            Kotsko lists the common explanations for the alleged decrease in literacy. The first of such is the argument that technology, specifically smartphones, are too distracting for any person to read for an extended period of time, thereby corrupting the reading experience. Kotsko does not seem to consider this to be the main contributor for the problem, but they do not discredit this explanation entirely. 

            I do think technology has changed the way students read, however I do not think it is an exclusively negative change. I argue that the way we communicate has changed because of technology. Because there is so much content online, I typically rely on clear and concise information in order to understand what is happening regarding a certain topic. Writings that do not quickly or clearly explain meaning or purpose can be tedious and time consuming. Current college students might be expecting different types of communication from students in the past. So too, on days I find my phone to be particularly distracting, I power it off until I finish my readings in order to focus. I know at least some of my peers do the same. 

            Kotsko acknowledges that the pandemic, and possible gaps in education may contribute to students’ inability to read as well as they did in the past. However, Kotsko again argues that the true cause of students’ declining literacy is elsewhere.

So why might today’s college students be struggling to read? According to Kotsko, its academic policies like No Child Left Behind emphasize students’ ability to test instead of their ability to read and understand written information. Educators have jeopardized students’ abilities, in favor of higher test scores that would bring about better funding.

The problem is so extensive that according to the author, students’ literacy or their ability to read at all, let alone read well, has been ruined, because reading long texts doesn’t help students achieve higher test scores. I disagree with this argument most. Kotsko argues students are unable to find meaning in readings, and read for extended periods of time; however, tests and school require students to focus for extended periods of time. Is it impossible that other types of focus can translate to focus in reading? In addition, I do not think that preparing students for tests is what has jeopardized their education.

            For example, Kotsko gives an example of a student who is unfamiliar with basic vocabulary and criticizes common core standards for failing in students’ phonics education that would help them understand. I do not think vocabulary issues are just issues of  instruction, but also lack of reading variety. I read Lord of the Flies four times during my middle and high school years. In addition, I read The Crucible, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Odyssey at least twice. The lack of communication of works taught in a small town, in schools is astonishing. At the time, I was appreciative of the fact that I didn’t need to reread the novels as carefully, but looking back, I think it would have been good for me to read different authors, in different styles. This isn’t to say that such classics don’t belong in high school classrooms. I’m simply arguing that a specific set of classics is taught, but often students get little other literary exposure that not only could have bolstered their education, but also have made them interested in reading itself. Indeed, most of my vocabulary comes from reading science fiction and fantasy novels during free periods in high school. If we are to focus on failures within the humanities, I would consider this to be a major one. In highschool I was never taught to appreciate alternative written works such as journalism, academic reports, etc. All of these styles, though, I interact with regularly in my classes. Indeed, it was a sharp learning curve during my freshman year of college trying to understand writings that were not in the form of a novel.

Therefore I appreciate Kotsko’s concern, however I think he missatributes the sources of such problems. In addition, the problem Kotsko describes seems somewhat overstated, and is framed in a highly contextual way. Indeed, how I do my readings for class is dependent on how I will be interacting with the text in class and in my assignments. Meaning each time I read, I apply different techniques. 

Here is the article if you are interested in reading: https://slate.com/human-interest/2024/02/literacy-crisis-reading-comprehension-college.html

If you disagree with my critiques, or have an experience that differs from mine feel free to share. I am a student, not an educator, so I do not doubt that there are factors to this argument that I am missing.

One Response to “Learning to Read”

  1.   Ed Webb said:

    I very much appreciate you engaging so thoughtfully with Prof. Kotsko’s piece. I hope some of your peers will add their thoughts as comments here or on their own blogs.

Leave a Reply