How is the Netherlands doing; what is the problem?
On St. Nicholas’ Eve 2023, in addition to Saint Nicholas, an unpleasant message arrived: the reading skills of 15-year-olds have further declined. The reading proficiency of Dutch youth was already not in good shape (as early as 2019, a quarter of 15-year-olds could not read well enough to function in society), and the downward trend seems to be continuing. Well-intentioned initiatives have not been lacking; the Children’s Book Week has been trying for years to engage the youth, and columnist/presenter Marcel van Roosmalen was crowned Ambassador of Reading Promotion, a title that did not exist before but is undoubtedly coveted, however, the situation persists. How did we go from being a nation of readers to a place facing the challenges of declining literacy”

How could this happen?

Certainly, this is anecdotal evidence, but when students are asked about whether they still read – and why not anymore – they often point to Dutch classes in secondary school. Reading for the required reading list, reading comprehension, these components of the subject are said to be the reason for the steady decline in reading enjoyment among Dutch youth. The opinion that reading comprehension has caused a disaster in terms of declining interest in reading is not unique to students; popular presenter Arjen Lubach also expressed concern about “reading comprehension” and the resulting hatred of reading in 2020.

It is evident that young people are reading less well, but it should also be clear that this is not because there is no attention to it in secondary schools: there definitely is. More than half of all teachers, across the board, consistently pay attention to reading and reading skills. The problem lies not so much in the attention schools give to the subject, but in how the subject is approached. Due to an excess of focus on signal words and paragraph goals, students are no longer engaged in what they should be doing: truly understanding a text, and perhaps cultivating some reading enjoyment along the way.

What consequences does this problem have?

It feels strange to present arguments in a written article about why it is important for people (not only young people but people in general) to be able to read well enough to function in society. Especially strange because the group in question probably won’t even read this article, and if they do, it’s questionable to what extent they understand this text.

I’ll immediately dispel any room for speculation; the blame for the problem of poor reading and declining interest in reading does not lie with the quarter of 15-year-olds who struggle with reading. It’s easy to dismiss this group as spoiled individuals who spend their entire day watching Netflix and can’t pick up a book, but that oversimplifies the issue. In fact, although 44 percent of young people between 12 and 20 do not find reading enjoyable, over 90 percent of the same group say they consider reading important. While it may not be their favorite hobby, they are still willing to read more. That’s good news because reading is beneficial for various reasons: it stimulates language development and can counteract prejudices. Additionally, being able to read well is crucial for acquiring knowledge. Moreover, reading is simply important for functioning well in society. Understanding leaflets, grasping instructions—these are all small things that are essential but can be overshadowed if the reading skills of young people cannot be improved.

What solutions are possible?

The reading proficiency of young people needs to be brought up to par. I harbor no illusions; this is not a task that can be accomplished within a few years. Multiple government terms will be required before Dutch youth are again at the level of their international peers. The current policies regarding reading and promoting literacy need to be adjusted.

The solution to raise the reading level is deadly simple: more reading is needed. Research indicates that reading frequency is a significant predictor of reading proficiency. The same study also shows that reading less leads to diminished reading skills. By reading more, people improve their reading abilities.

So, let me advocate for literature education in secondary schools. Reading and understanding articles and books should play a more central role in education. Young people need to be enthused about the gems that Dutch literature has to offer. It is important to look beyond the Big Three, beyond Multatuli and beyond Van der Heijden, as wonderful as the novels of these writers may be. Allow students more freedom in choosing their books so that they can develop their own joy of reading. Of course, students should be introduced to the classics of Dutch literature, but let them also compare these works with those of Kluun or the prose of Giphart, contemporary works that may resonate with today’s youth.

Dutch literature has a diamond for everyone who seeks it. Let students find their diamond and lose themselves in a book, even if it doesn’t entirely meet the criteria of “required reading.” Let them find their spark that ignites the fire for reading. Promote a love for reading that extends beyond the classroom.  In the battle against declining interest in reading, the book is the most powerful weapon, so let’s not deploy it too selectively.

Picture by lil artsy, via Pexels