A recent study at the University of Calgary has found that university students are losing their ability to read. One of the first signs of this decrease is an inability to understand satire. The lead researcher, Dr. Cindy Whitehorn, said that although this decrease is sad, it really comes as no surprise.
“Students these days just don’t read,” Whitehorn explained. “The primary school system spends so much time teaching students to read and trying to instil them with a love of reading, but it just isn’t sticking anymore.”
The study looked at the reading level of 1,000 U of C students across all faculties, and found that the average reading level was a Grade 4 level, which means that reading comprehension was severely lacking.
Although faculties such as engineering and science scored worse, faculties where strong readers were expected didn’t score much better.
“Apparently the English majors don’t actually read the books they are assigned anymore,” said Whitehorn.
Although this study is not the first of its kind in North America, it is the first one that looks at U of C students. Questions remain as to how U of C students fare in comparison to other schools. Whitehorn will be collaborating with researchers at other schools to see if this is a national trend and where U of C students sit on a national scale.
Whitehorn believes that the Internet and social media have caused the greatest decline in the scores.
“If a student spends all day looking at Facebook, there’s really no wonder that they can’t read a piece of text longer than 500 words,” said Whitehorn.
A reduced attention span seems to be one of the main factors leading to the reduction in reading ability. Every website offers videos, pictures and the ability to change the page in seconds, which has a negative impact on reading ability.
Whitehorn was unsure of what the long-term consequences would be of this reduced reading ability.
“Sadly, we do expect reading ability to keep falling. There’s a downward trend and we don’t expect it to bottom out anytime soon. Who knows what the consequences will be for our society, which is predicated on reading. Will we return to being cavemen and communicating through pictures?” Whitehorn said.
Surprisingly, Whitehorn found that understanding satire was the first ability students lost.
“We started with the obvious ones, such as A Modest Proposal. And the students were just as perplexed as the initial British audience. Yet, when we showed them a clip from Saturday Night Live, they understood the satire,” said Whitehorn. This correlation shows that the reading is the reason that the satire is missed, not failing to understand the concept of satire itself.
“I do like to read,” said third-year nursing student Heather McFarlan. Yet, when asked what she had read lately, she answered, “Well, uh, I did skim through my notes for class last week and I’m very devoted to Twitter. I read the back of a cereal box this morning.”
McFarlan believes the study results are accurate, however.
“I will admit that I don’t read as much as I should, but it’s just so complicated — long blocks of unbroken text confuse me,” said McFarlan.
Second-year engineering student Kyle Geurther said that he doesn’t see reading as very important anymore.
“Math is where it’s at. Who really needs to read?” said Geurther. Geurther does enjoy reading the comics in the Calgary Sun.
“Doesn’t that count as satire?” he asked.
Professors have also reacted to these findings. Sociology professor Dr. Harry Divult, who has been teaching at the U of C for 21 years, said that the findings don’t really come as a shock to him.
“I could have told you that students can’t read as well as they used to. I wouldn’t need to do a study to find that out. Look at the quality of essays I receive. There are some bright students, but most of it is scary — and not the Halloween kind of scary,” said Divult.
Divult said that when students were presented with several pages of text in class, most just stared blankly at it, not knowing what to do.
“We are doomed,” he concluded.