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Alas: TV, not books

I now understand why my students can't read well anymore. They, along with their families, are sitting in front of the TV for over seven hours every day. This is two hours longer than in 1950. By the year 2000, families will be watching television for more than eight hours a day. That's eight hours of not reading.

I am puzzled that families are able to watch so much television. If children are in school from 8 to 3 and parents work from 9 to 5, who is watching and when?

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If someone snaps on the set at 3, it would have to stay on until 10, seven days a week. When is there time to play Pac-Man, listen to Michael Jackson, or punch a few computer buttons? When do families eat or play together? When do students study and read?

I was fooled for a while because they talk intelligently, are lively, and often charming. They appear to be as intelligent as ever, but they don't read very well.

And they don't write very well either. They seem to have lost the ability or the will to use words to organize their thoughts on paper. I fear it may be becoming too difficult for them.

When they watched only five hours of TV a day, their Scholastic Aptitude Test scores were 40 points higher.

In Farmington, Conn., when they turned off the TV sets for a month, the library circulation rose 30 percent. In one elementary school the average viewing was cut from 30 hours a week to five.

Television's defenders maintain that there are some good programs on TV. ''It's not all bad,'' they say. ''Look at the specials and the educational channels.''

But they miss the point. Good TV is as bad as awful TV because it dulls the mind and devours time. Time spent viewing is time spent not reading or writing or talking or thinking.

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How many television programs challenge the mind, pose questions, stimulate ideas, or intrigue us with the puzzle of ambiguity?

Students now measure their reading by what they watch. Books are seen as boring, too difficult, or ''stupid'': they lack the easy, uninvolved accessibility of television.

Some of us are still trying to pry open the doors to a world we love. But I am afraid we are the dinosaurs. We are the readers, and we are the teachers.

Lee E. Allen is director of English (K-12) for the Needham, Mass., public schools.

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