The Self-Reg View of Literacy

I just read a study by Pearson UK’s educational research team reporting that, beginning at the age of 11, nearly all children today stop reading for pleasure. Reading has been vanquished by the likes of online games, streamed videos, social media, Vines, and a slew of “Internet stars” who create low-budget “talk shows” in which they prattle on about nothing and attempt to lure followers by being funny, outrageous or even sometimes informative (usually along the lines of providing gaming strategies).

This is fertile ground for a properly researched sociological study on “The Decline and Fall of Reading in Western Civilization.” The rearguard, led by teachers, is resorting to using rewards to induce children to read, since reading itself can no longer be used as a reward. I’d be surprised if any parent today is saying to their children, as my own parents said to us when my sister and I were growing up, that we could go read our books as soon as our chores were done. Instead, we have our children earning computer time or treats for the amount of reading they do. Such strategies are not going to nurture a love of reading, and it’s little wonder that children turn off reading the second they can control these rewards on their own.

Now, the very first step of Self-Reg is always to “dig deeper,” because you really can’t “reframe” a behavior until you understand it. Is the decline of pleasure-reading a consequence of the rise of special effects? That is, reading just isn’t as interesting as it was in the antediluvian “pre-Internet” days in which my sister and I grew up? Or is there something else at play?

The most common complaint that parents hear when they exhort their children to read a book is that “reading is boring”; but recent findings in the psychology of boredom indicate that such complaints are generally an expression of agitation, with striking physiological correlates.

We have so much research telling us how effective reading is as a mode of relaxing, but if children are shying away from this in droves, does that signify that far from having this effect, they are actually finding reading a stressor in its own right? Are children turning from reading, not simply because there is something else that they find more entertaining, but also because reading in order to obtain a reward undermines the very pleasure of reading?

If nothing else, Self-Reg certainly leads us to ask some interesting questions. But in this case, it might be hinting at something more powerful, and perhaps more worrying. Maybe the decline and fall of reading is an aspect of a generation hooked on instant gratification?

Watch children or teens as they watch a movie or TV show and you’ll notice how they now “fast-forward” through the “boring” parts (= dialogue or character development) to get to the “good” parts (the spectacular special effects, the hero triumphing, the romantic denouement). Movies excel in the art of creating tension and then the big release in the final few minutes of the film, yet children are skipping over these essential dramatic elements.

Maybe the decline of reading is more than just a reflection of shrinking attention spans. For the way that children are—quite unconsciously— managing their tension suggests a still deeper explanation. Studies have shown that a reduction in waiting time has a striking impact on sales. But there are all sorts of experiences where it is difficult to reduce waiting times, so instead the astute entrepreneur or service industry comes up with ingenious ways of distracting the consumer while they are waiting (Disney excels at this).

The problem is that waiting is itself a stressor, meaning: we are in a state of heightened tension while we wait. In fact, just imagining waiting for something is enough to induce feelings of tension. Perhaps there is an evolutionary mechanism operating here. For example, a hunter has to wait in a state of heightened tension so that he can pounce the moment he spots his prey. The tension is then released in an explosive movement.

But what has been happening with children and teens is that the time- lapse between waiting and reward has grown shorter and shorter, almost to the point of disappearing altogether. This is an important aspect of the Reward System: the faster the better, regardless of whether the “reward” in question is the release of opioids or the response to a text message or being served or accumulating points in some inane game.

Self-Reg actually seeks to capitalize on rather than fight this aspect of the reward system. We still want “instant gratification”; only we want the “reward” to be the state of relaxation that occurs when you immerse yourself in a story. We want reading to become a core strategy in students’ fifth step of Self-Reg, rather than a penance to be endured. But that will only happen if they’ve first been guided through the first four steps of Self-Reg. And what a reward this would be for all of us educators and parents: to see our children reaching for a book rather than their computer when they are starting to feel agitated.


Dr. Stuart Shanker is the Founder and CEO of The MEHRIT Centre.  You can read all the posts in his “Self-Reg View of” series here. You can also read his writing on Psychology Today and The Huffington Post.

Dr. Stuart Shanker is a Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Psychology at York University and the CEO of The MEHRIT Centre, Ltd. Stuart has served as an advisor on early child development to government organizations across Canada and the US, and in countries around the world. Dr. Shanker also blogs for Psychology Today
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