‘Young people don’t read because the phone is a much more affordable form of leisure’

Literature professor Miguel Salas highlights the importance of ensuring teenagers don’t abandon the pleasure of reading in the age of TikTok and YouTube

Elisa Silió
Miguel Salas
Literature professor and secondary school teacher Miguel Salas.INMA FLORES

Miguel Salas, who has a doctorate in comparative literature, is convinced that in such an aggressive, distracting world, it is a feat for teenagers to read. He believes that reading is essential for recovering the ability to concentrate ― which he sees diminished among his students at a school in Madrid ― and to improve reading comprehension. In his book Reading plan: surviving adolescence without stopping reading, Salas, who has worked at universities in China and Taiwan, suggests that teachers read aloud to their students and establish a dialogue with them about classic texts. Parents are recommended to establish a reading time routine ― not to use it as punishment or reward ― to visit libraries (even if they buy books) and to not insist that their children read the same titles that captivated them in their youth.

Question. In the 2008 crisis, the sale of children’s books didn’t drop. But parents barely read to their children.

Answer. Reading carries a lot of prestige, which no one dares to dispute, but we live in a very aggressive environment for reading. We are acquiring new habits, like cell phones, very quickly, without thinking whether we want to or not. It has more to do with that than with a conscious abandonment of reading.

Q. Why do people stop reading in adolescence?

A. They focus more on sharing experiences with friends. The phone is a much more affordable form of leisure. Watching a 30-second video costs nothing, but getting a book takes effort, even if the reward is much greater.

Q. In the book, you are very critical of social networks.

A. My students’ concentration has dropped tremendously with smartphones. We touch the mobile close to a thousand times a day and communicate with others about 150 times. With the mobile on the table, you act like a person with a much lower IQ. Many children who shine academically practice ballet or music, which require a lot of concentration. Kids are often very aware that they don’t remember short videos they’ve watched or that they get nervous if there’s no change in activity. They watch shows, and even listen to music, at 1.5x speed, because they are unable to keep up. No one listens to an entire song, they always hit the little button first. That shreds their attention spans.

Q. It’s impossible for them to read a novel that way.

A. They read because they have to, but they end up really liking it. At my school we take them to the library once a week to read. They cannot take out their cell phones or do any other activity. Most love it. The fundamental thing is a good selection of texts and leaving time for them to read. But then they get home tired and the same thing happens to them as with adults, that they turn to their phones. Reading is the perfect exercise for children to regain ownership of their ability to concentrate. It is a fight that is worth bringing up in schools, in the face of so many tablets. Social networks make money from the fragmentation of attention. I always tell kids that they are the product. Otherwise they would be paying for social media. This idea that social networks are a means of communication is false, they are a means of advertising.

I always tell kids that they are the product. Otherwise they would be paying for social media”
Miguel Salas

Q. You recommend having a conversation with the teenager before recommending a topic.

A. It’s essential. I start by asking them. You have to take an interest in their world. And that is very difficult. I have been in secondary school for 11 years. At the beginning, I understood the kids’ terms, and now it’s really hard for me. Before, I understood them because I watched television, and they did too, and from time to time we watched the same things. But now we don’t have the same entertainment as children. They have it all on YouTube, Tik-Tok...

Q. Are you against using the mobile for educational purposes?

A. It is not a work tool. You have a spreadsheet, an email, but alongside a bunch of distracting elements. I am a convert. I went in very excited, but I have realized that it pushes the students in the wrong direction. They are very happy, but they learn much less. Next course, I’m not going to upload the notes to the internet. I have realized that I am robbing them of their capacity to understand and synthesize ideas. Then, when they study your notes, they don’t understand, because they haven’t paid attention in class.

Q. You reiterate the lack of reading comprehension at all levels.

A. If I don’t have words to name something, that something doesn’t exist for me. In the book I give the data. At 20 months of life, a baby from families with a high cultural level can handle 200 words and a low cultural level 20. It’s just outrageous. They learn to read late, and when they begin to use reading to learn, they run out of words. Many times they come to dislike learning. Many of us have discovered our vocations at school, but if you are not able to understand, you will never be enthusiastic about anything.

Q. Should we look for texts more in keeping with these times and renounce the classics?

A. Neither. The teachers should do a contextualized reading of the classics. Reading books out loud in class has been lost. The teacher has to master the classic texts, extract interesting fragments and put them in contact with the life of the students, and do so slowly. For that, though, we would have to separate literature and language [into two subjects], because if not the agenda eats us up. Reading classics is not going to create readers. We need to make books available, classified by subject and interest, so they can take one and switch it out if they don’t like it. It’s okay if they read a motorcycle magazine. The important thing is that they acquire a habit of reading.

Q. In the book, you state that reading improves empathy.

A. I think all of us who are readers have experienced the sensation of putting ourselves in the shoes of a person who has nothing to do with us. Literature makes you understand that under the differences, as the Chinese say, is the human being.

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