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It's Not Just Little Kids — Professors Say Even College Students Are Behind On Reading & Everyone's In Denial

Photo: Antonio Guillem / Shutterstock
college student struggling to read

Let’s cut to the chase — younger generations are struggling with literacy. And it’s not just young kids learning to read for the first time. 

With the changing landscape of educational systems, both from COVID-19 and a variety of other socio-political factors, kids are learning in far different ways than students were just a few years prior. Rather than focusing on a genuine educational benchmark, students are being prepped for standardized tests, which in turn drive more financial revenue to school districts when their kids do well.

However, we’ve gotten to a point where this system has not just affected elementary and middle school level students — it’s also harming generations of now college-level learners. 

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“We are not complaining about our students,” humanities college professor Adam Kotsko said about his students’ struggle with reading. “We are complaining about what has been taken from them.” 

College professors are concerned that their students are ‘behind on reading skills,’ admitting it’s not just little kids who are struggling.

Other college staff members, including a Cornell professor, acknowledged the insanity of poor reading skills in college-level students. “This was the most astonishing thing about teaching freshmen at Cornell this fall,” he wrote. “Students who had never read anything longer than a reading comprehension excerpt for the SAT.” 

Shockingly, “leisure reading” among adults is at an “all-time low” — meaning the importance, habit, and pleasure of reading is being passed down to children less and less. Of course, with growing financial hardship in many families, it’s not surprising parents are indulging less in hobbies like reading. 

So, what's keeping kids from growing genuine reading skills? Why are students from elementary-level age up to college failing to focus, comprehend, and digest what they read

Experts blame cellphone usage and the COVID-19 pandemic for negatively affecting reading comprehension, competency, and focus. 

“It is no coincidence that the iPhone itself, originally released in 2007, is approaching college age, meaning that professors are increasingly dealing with students who would have become addicted to the dopamine hit of the omnipresent screen long before they were introduced to the pleasures of the page,” Kotsko wrote. 

It's Not Just Kids — Instructors Say Even College Students Are Behind On Reading SkillsPhoto: Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

Even around 15% of adults expressed a difficulty in focus, due to their cellphone usage, back in 2018 — a number that’s increased incredibly post-pandemic. In addition to focus, students struggle with heightened anxiety, loneliness, and depression when they use their cellphones more often, increasing the chances they will struggle with focus and concentration in the classroom. 

Despite debates about the impact on direct reading skills from the COVID-19 pandemic, experts can’t help but acknowledge the “very real learning loss” that students dealt with at every educational level: “The impact will inevitably continue to be felt for the next decade.” 

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Trends in schools to pursue a ‘test-focused’ education curriculum are actively harming students’ reading skills, particularly decreasing their ability to read long-form pieces. 

It’d be ignorant to not mention the economic factors intertwined with students’ and adults’ reading levels, because, at the end of the day, literacy is a social justice issue. 

There’s a direct link between children’s reading and vocabulary skills and their economic background, explaining why many first-generation college students and low-income students struggle at a much higher rate to “keep up” with class readings. 

However, college students across the board are struggling with their reading skills — from comprehension to focus — and it can largely be attributed to “teach to the test” motivations in many school districts. 



“I started to see the results of this ill-advised change… my students abruptly stopped attempting to sound out unfamiliar words and instead paused until they recognized the whole word as a unit,” Kotsko said. “[There’s] a growing trend toward assigning students only the kind of short passages … in a standardized test.” 

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Alongside “infamous Common Core standard” shifts, teachers are fighting to assign longer novels and text to their students, despite misguided evidence suggesting it doesn’t directly lead to higher test scores. “The emphasis on standardized tests was always a distraction at best, but we have reached a point where it is actively cannibalizing students’ education experience.” 

This college ‘literacy crisis’ is setting students up for failure as experts admit books and long-form writings are essential for emotional, social, and intellectual wellness. 

“People — their histories and identities, their institutions and work processes, their fears and desires — are simply too complex to be captured in a worksheet with a paragraph and some reading comprehension questions. Large-scale prose writing is the best medium,” Kotsko argued. 

“This is a matter not of snobbery, but of basic justice,” he continued. “What’s happening with the current generation is not that they are simply choosing TikTok over Jane Austen. They are being deprived of the ability to choose — for no real reason or benefit.”

Of course, the blame is not solely on teachers, parents, friends, leadership, and admin are also responsible for the well-being of children and young adults. We must promote a lifestyle that opens the door to books — or newspapers, articles, anything longer than a paragraph — and make it exciting to read. 

It's Not Just Kids — Instructors Say Even College Students Are Behind On Reading SkillsPhoto: Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

If they’re only going to interact with reading when preparing for standardized testing, they’re never going to have the capability to read longer stories, experience unique perspectives, and focus on something for more than a few minutes.

It’s essential that we address this problem, before reading, writing, and cultural literacy go completely extinct. 

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Zayda Slabbekoorn is a news and entertainment writer at YourTango focusing on pop culture analysis and human interest stories.