Distractions of Modern Life at Key Ages
                   Are Cited for Drop in Student Literacy
                   By Joan E. Rigdon and Alecia Swasy

                   The Wall Street Journal
                   PAGE B1
                   (Copyright (c) 1990, Dow Jones & Co., Inc.)

                   Margaret Newborg can't fathom why her daughter Julie won't read. She
                   spent hundreds of hours reading out loud to her, sent her to "all kinds of
                   toddler groups" and enrolled her in an exclusive Connecticut boarding
                   school with an excellent library.

                   "She had all the opportunities. And the most she will read on her own is
                   fashion magazines," laments Ms. Newborg, a New York outplacement

                   Julie, now a political science major at the University of Arizona, scored
                   more than 125 points above the national average on the verbal Scholastic
                   Aptitude Test, and she does read for class. But she races through her
                   homework to watch television.

                   Julie's reading habits help explain why literacy skills in the U.S. are falling.
                   The decline has implications for businesses that depend on a literate public
                   to buy their products. To deal with the problem, some magazine publishers
                   have started special children's editions. Others are using more photos and
                   shorter sentences.

                   Even companies that don't sell periodicals or books are worried. Not only
                   do poor readers make poor employees, but they're also poor consumers.
                   For companies like Procter & Gamble Co., "the better educated consumers
                   are the more affluent consumers -- and better customers for our products,"
                   says Robert L. Wehling, a vice president.

                   Experts and teachers agree that the nation's literacy problem is rooted in
                   modern culture, where flashy distractions easily win short attention spans
                   away from literary pursuits. Instead of reading , writing letters or
                   discussing politics, students spend their free time watching television,
                   talking on the phone, zapping video monsters and playing sports.

                   This year, the national average on the verbal college admissions test
                   administered by the College Board dropped again, to 424 from 427 last year
                   and 431 in 1986, matching the lowest score since averages were first
                   compiled in 1967.

                   The verbal section of the SAT exam isn't the last word on literacy. It was
                   designed to measure students' ability to learn in college, not knowledge
                   already acquired. Many educators say it's a better test of memory and
                   familiarity with middle-class concepts than reading prowess. Others
                   question the scores' significance, arguing that they have dropped because
                   more students from poor academic backgrounds are taking the test. Still,
                   the SAT stands as the leading national barometer of reading ability.

                   "We're living in a culture where language is not highly prized," says Ernest
                   L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of
                   Teaching. Adds Jane M. Healy, a Vail, Colo., education consultant and
                   writer: "We're raising kids to have two-minute minds."

                   Children aren't born with two-minute minds, but they lose interest along the
                   way. There are crucial times when they can make or break a reading
                   habit: as toddlers; when they start using textbooks in grammar school; and
                   most importantly, in junior high, when they suddenly face a myriad of social

                   Children are more likely to want to read if their parents read out loud to
                   them as toddlers. But many parents acknowledge that they don't do that
                   consistently -- either because they're beat at the end of a working day or
                   can't wean their children away from television or other activities.

                   Melinda Bracken, a Pittsburgh mother of three young daughters, says she
                   always thought she would read to her children daily. But it was hard to find
                   time when she worked full days as director of a local blood bank.
                   "Everyone was exhausted by dinnertime," she says. Now she's home
                   full-time and expecting her fourth child, but she feels time pressures from
                   having more kids. "What started as reading every night is now every other
                   night," she says. "There's more competition for mom's hours."

                   Preschool is also the age at which children first sit through dinner-table
                   conversations and hear words they don't learn in day-care. But many
                   families have only one parent, so the children and their limited vocabularies
                   dominate the conversation. And many two-income families are too busy or
                   too tired to share the meal or use it as a discussion forum.

                   Doff Meyer, a corporate communications consultant who works out of her
                   New York City home, says she and her husband read religiously to their
                   five-year-old son Brooks, but they only get to eat together two or three
                   times during the workweek because her husband travels for his job.

                   When her husband is in town, the schedule is harried. Ms. Meyer stops
                   working at 6 p.m., and her husband arrives home an hour later. But Brooks
                   gets hungry before then, so Ms. Meyer often feeds him first. Sometimes
                   Brooks sits through a hectic second dinner with the family and talks about
                   his parents' day. But he misses out on a regular diet of dinner table talk
                   between both parents.

                   "That was my idea of what we were supposed to do," Ms. Meyer says of
                   family dinners. "But things are different. We don't live the way our parents
                   lived." Instead, she says, the family spends its time together at the
                   playground on weekends.

                   In grammar school, children face another hurdle: Instead of learning to
                   read, they must start reading to learn -- and the textbooks aren't nearly as
                   much fun as stories by Maurice Sendak and Dr. Seuss.

                   "All of a sudden, here's this big, hard, long book with no pictures in it, and
                   no one's going to read it to you or hold you next to them while they're doing
                   it," says Ms. Healy, the education consultant, who touts children's literature
                   over textbooks.

                   Consider Amy Barsukov of Pomona, N.Y. When she was little, she loved
                   being read to for two hours every day. "She couldn't get enough," says her
                   mother, kindergarten teacher Randee Barsukov. But after plowing through
                   third grade texts, Amy "got turned off," Ms. Barsukov says. Now a high
                   school sophomore, Amy spends all her time gabbing with friends on
                   conference calls.

                   And reading ? "Nah, I don't like to read," Amy says. "I think it's boring."
                   Last year, she had to read "Romeo and Juliet" for class. "Oh, it's OK,"
                   Amy says of Shakespeare's play, but she prefers teen magazines.

                   By far the most crucial point in a child's reading life is junior high school:
                   Hormones race, and students feel pressure to "be cool." These pressures
                   aren't new, and junior high school students have always been flighty. But
                   now, many are coping with the lure of drugs or the pain of divorce.
                   Moreover, televisions and telephones are sprouting in students' bedrooms.
                   And new types of gizmos and more activities vie for students' attention.

                   James Tew, an 11-year-old from Greenville, S.C., has his calendar
                   crammed with activities. He is on his school's football, baseball, basketball
                   and swim teams.

                   When James was younger, his mother took him to the library and read out
                   loud to him. That tactic inspired James's older sister, who finished reading
                   "Gone With the Wind" and "Grapes of Wrath" before she enrolled in fourth

                   But not James. He has no time to read. On school days, he gets home at
                   about 3:30 p.m., spends up to 90 minutes doing homework and then leaves
                   for practice. Back home at about 8:30 p.m., he has one hour before he
                   goes to sleep. And he doesn't spend it with a book. "His idea of reading is
                   to peruse baseball cards" and Nintendo magazine, sighs his mother, Glenda

                   The fallout becomes evident in high school. Art Peterson, a composition
                   teacher at Lowell High School in San Francisco, a public school where
                   students must compete to gain admission, says he has to start from scratch
                   teaching his freshmen how to write. Most haven't read enough to pick up
                   basic sentence construction.

                   Kathleen Gonzalez, an English teacher at Newington High School in an
                   affluent suburb of Hartford, Conn., describes her students' vocabularies as
                   "fairly disappointing." Once, during a test on "Romeo and Juliet," Mrs.
                   Gonzalez discovered that her freshman students didn't understand the word

                   John S. Carroll, editor of the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, says the
                   effect of the decline in literacy on newspapers is "alarming." The
                   Knight-Ridder paper, which draws a portion of its readership from rural,
                   impoverished counties, occasionally uses computer software called the
                   Flesch Test to measure a story's readability. The goal is to write stories at
                   a 10th or 11th grade level.

                   A recent series on education problems in Kentucky, which was named a
                   finalist for the Pulitzer Prize this year, was written for readers at an 8th or
                   9th grade level to make sure it was accessible to all subscribers. "We
                   boiled it down to the barest essentials," Mr. Carroll says.

                   Fears about losing readers have prompted some newspaper and magazine
                   publishers to start special children's editions. Time Warner distributes
                   thousands of free copies of Sports Illustrated for Kids at schools. IBM,
                   AT&T and other corporate sponsors pick up the tab. "Using sports baits
                   the kids to read more," says John Papanek, managing editor of the

                   Even the folks who write corporate annual reports seem to be concerned
                   about keeping readers these days. Sid Cato, who publishes a newsletter
                   ranking the reports, says more of them now contain glossy photographs to
                   make them more appealing to shareholders.

                   Still, the average sentence length in the 1989 reports climbed to 19.5 words
                   a sentence, up from 18.5 a year earlier. Mr. Kato figures it's better to stick
                   close to 12 if you really want anyone to read them. "You still have the
                   financial types mucking things up," he says.


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