Helping teenagers read

A friend of mine visited my house, an English teacher clearly unhappy with her day. One of her teenage students had rubbished her lesson and the novel they were studying to another teacher. In the staff room there was general consensus that, though my friend is a great teacher, the book was totally unsuitable for boys because the lead character is a teenage girl. Gosh, of course they should forget about the book and watch the movie version instead. After all, a teenager wouldn’t be able to discover the mind or world of another person within the pages of a book! That would be way too demanding; they’d better just watch the movie.

It’s just one microscopic example of a wider trend being reported—or at least generally believed—that people today are too busy, too tired and too lazy to read, teenagers most of all. Books seem destined to die at the hands of a busy generation and a digital age that encourages passive inactivity.

And yet here I am, a youth minister who writes books for young people. Why do I bother, when so many complain that ‘kids these days’ hate to read? Here’s why I think books and longer written works will survive the digital age, and why writing for young people is worthwhile.

Going digital hasn’t killed the traditional

Teenagers still love to read. They read all the time; it’s just that what they are reading has a glass screen rather than a Penguin Classics cover. If you think about the devotion that teens have to Facebook and, to a lesser degree, Twitter, then you will happily agree that they are reading for hours a day. But what they are reading is casual, relevant and viral. It is generated by their peers and phrased in their own street or screen language. The punctuation is terrible and the spelling is abominable, but the words are being read.

The distribution of writing via electronic media may actually signal an overall increase in the volume of books read. Amazon’s Kindle, Apple’s iPad, and other electronic readers make acquiring a book far easier and probably cheaper than a visit to a book retailer. The proliferation of titles offered by online sellers like Amazon and The Book Depository is likely to signal a boom rather than ringing a death knell for books.

The drawback of digital

So reading is not dead. But it does seem that in a digital age we want digital answers; teenagers (certainly) and other folk (increasingly) turn first to Google and Wikipedia for answers. Everyone can contribute to the global knowledge inventory by typing, sending, and storing their words online. Billions of people are constantly adding to the dump of information.

But these advantages are also shortcomings. It is estimated that the volume of information available doubles every two years, but the quality of that information is in general decline. Opinions are rife but long-form in-depth analysis, which truly facilitates learning and extends the reader, is scarce.

A publisher’s editorial process provides a sifting service that search engines cannot match. If an author goes to the trouble of reviewing their argument, facts and expression with several drafts, and if a publisher considers the quality of that work worthy of its investment, then any resulting publication is likely to be a better read in every sense than a blog post on the same topic.

In any case, books compare quite well to smaller electronic devices: they are just as portable, have no batteries or warranties to run out, are shockproof and drop-proof, and look far better on a bookcase. Long-form works, on paper or as ebooks, will continue to have their place.

Teenagers are not too busy

But if reading is not beyond the bounds of their abilities, do teens have the time to squeeze it into their busy lives? The answer must be ‘yes’ for all but the busiest. Australian teenagers watch an average of two hours of television a day, while in the UK teens watch three hours daily and their American peers nearly four hours. While time on the computer might not be leisure time, television time almost certainly is!

Let’s do some maths. The average book might have about 400 words per page and around 250 pages, resulting in 100,000 words. Depending on ability, people read between 125 and 250 words per minute. This means that you ought to be able to read a 250-page book somewhere in the range of 6 to 13 hours. If a teenager decided to replace all their television viewing with reading, even if they were at the slow end of reading speeds, they would be able to read a book a week. Now ditching all television is a rather unlikely scenario, but what if instead we proposed half an hour of reading per day? The slowest of readers would still be able to finish a 250-page book each month, and a dozen books per year (and probably more as their reading improved). Few people read twelve books per year, but it could be easier for teens than we assume.

How to make books work for teenagers

So we’ve found the time, but how do we make books work for the teenagers who don’t take naturally to reading, and might easily choose to do something else with their time? After all, our goal is presumably more than an assembly line of words marching past their eyes! How do help grow our teens in godly ways through what they read?

Book choice is critical

The first thing you want to do to make reading work for teenagers is to find books that are written with clear biblical content. That way we are always training our teens to test everything against the eternal witness of Scripture.

Yet there’s no point in having faithful biblical content if the first sentence is going to induce a coma in your teenage readers. So you need to pick books that are related to topics that teenagers are interested in, or cover issues with which your youth are already engaged. For youth ministers with any degree of experience, these topics and issues are pretty obvious. But nothing beats asking students directly about the areas of Christian thinking in which they’d like to further develop their understanding.

We also need to learn the lessons from Facebook and Twitter. Long, verbose and meandering sentences are out (but proper punctuation will always be cool). Books need to be conversational in their tone, with plenty of practical examples or personal stories. Even if the topic being covered is abstract, you want to find a book that grounds the issue in real life and personal testimony.

If you want to get teenagers reading, make sure that the book you put in their hands does not appear too daunting a project. Something that looks like a telephone directory will have them reaching for the remote, but they are likely to give a book that is not too thick a decent chance. You also want to look out for books that have short chapters, so that in each sitting readers feel like they are making measurable progress. This good feeling can then build over a week or a fortnight as they make their way through it. Everyone feels a sense of accomplishment from finishing a book, so it’s a bonus if that achievement feels within reach when the reading begins.

I write the Little Black Books series with these requirements in mind. There is plenty of scripture in each chapter, but each chapter is direct, conversational, humorous, and accessible. The books cover practical issues that teenage Christians are interested in, like Sex, the problem of suffering (Suffering and Evil), and the basic questions surrounding the meaning of life (What’s Life All About?). I am firmly convinced that leaders are readers, so other Little Black Books like the Bible and Predestination are aimed at developing a young person’s Christian understanding and thinking on these topics using the same readable and straightforward tone, so they can go on and help others think through the issues.

Go small for big wins

If your youth group members find it difficult to get into books, another idea for helping them is to read the books together. In your small groups you could aim to read a chapter each time you meet. That will give you plenty of fodder for conversation, but also plenty of time for discussion with group members. Alternatively, youth leaders can set small group members a challenge to read a Little Black Book (or other suitable book) in a month. Perhaps if a student purchases their own copy of the first book in the challenge, the group leader can purchase additional books each time the student finishes reading one (the tight finances of youth ministry are one of the reasons why the Little Black Books have been made so affordable!). That will act as a reward and an encouragement to further reading.

Books are still beautiful. They make affordable presents for birthdays, Christmas, and for special occasions like baptisms or confirmation celebrations. They remain an ideal way to digest quality Christian argument and thinking. Once you persuade teenagers that reading is possible, if you put a good Little Black Book in their hands then they will experience the reward that reading brings, even in a digital age.

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