Are Kids Reading Less Than They Used To?

There was a really interesting article over at Edutopia last month about the worry some educators have about how technology and testing are affecting the amount of reading kids are doing.  Educators have noticed that some kids are struggling to read deeply and comprehend longer texts.

Are kids reading books deeply and for pleasure? Since the invention of the printing press, there has been a plethora of reading materials available.  Granted, not all reading is of the same value. Sir Francis Bacon expressed that in the 1600s:

The Edutopia article brought up two factors that might be contributing to that.  First, is technology and second is high-stakes testing. And it’s not just teachers that are worried about the amount of time spent on testing.

Just recently, over 100 children’s authors, including the likes of Judy Blume, signed a letter to President Obama arguing that “Our public school students spend far too much time preparing for reading tests and too little time curling up with books that fire their imaginations.”  One teacher said, I can attest to the fact that many of my former students rarely read novels and equated “passages” with reading.

Studies have shown that even when reading occurs, it competes with other media (TV, internet, video/computer games, emailing, etc.). For example, 58%of middle and high school students use other media while reading.

Americans seem to be doing well with their youngest children.  According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the percentage of preschool children ages 3–5 read to frequently by a family member (i.e., three or more times in the week preceding the survey) increased from 78 percent in 1993 to 86 percent in 2005.  That shows that overall, American’s are seeing the value of early literacy.

But trends show that reading rates decline as kids get older:

This downward trend in reading seems to go hand-in-hand with the reading scores that are available.  Reading scores for 4th and 8th graders seems to be at an all time high, while reading scores for 17 year olds have gone down over the past 20 years.

Are US students losing ground in reading as educators worry? (Ironically, I went to the National Center for Educational Statistics which gathers its data from standardized tests.)  From what I learned, in general American students’ reading scores have gone up in the past ten years:

The chart below shows the break-down of readers in grades 4 and 8.  In 4th grade, 68% are at basic reading levels or above. And by 8th grade, 78% of students are at basic reading levels and above.

But while reading rates for the younger ages appears to be at an all-time high, the reading scores for 17 year old has declined over the past 20 years:

The Edutopia article said that students are failing to read deeply.  A fascinating article in the Chronicle of Higher Education said that this is hardly surprising.  “The whole environment of school is simply alien to what long-form reading has been for almost all of its history. Rarely has education been about teaching children, adolescents, or young adults how to read lengthy and complicated texts with sustained, deep, appreciative attention—at least, not since the invention of the printing press.”

What if teachers have it wrong? Alan Jacobs, a professor of English at Wheaton College, writes, “the idea that many teachers hold today, that one of the purposes of education is to teach students to love reading—or at least to appreciate and enjoy whole books—is largely alien to the history of education. And perhaps alien to the history of reading as well.” Teachers are rarely able to force others to achieve deep attentive reading. When it comes to reading deeply, the only true education is self-education.

The article goes on to point out that it is important to have both skills… both the ability to skim quickly and accurately *and* the ability to concentrate and read for deeper meaning.  When you have access to thousands of articles, blogs, videos, and people with expertise on the topic, a good strategy is to skim first to get an overview. Skimming and concentrating can and should coexist.

But what Jacobs asserts is that “While virtually anyone who wants to do so can train his or her brain to the habits of long-form reading, in any given culture, few people will want to. And that’s to be expected. Serious “deep attention” reading has always been and will always be a minority pursuit.”

We seem to be doing well for our younger children:

  • preschoolers are read to at higher rates than twenty years ago
  • 4th and 8th graders are doing well in their reading

But somewhere along the line, we are losing our teenagers and adults.  They are not engaging with books as much as some would like.

There are some sobering statistics from the National Center for Educational Statistics

  • Less than half (48%) of the adult [American] population now reads literature for pleasure. This decline in reading literature occurs across all ages, sexes and races. The decline is most pronounced among the young.
  •  The percentage of 17-year-olds who read nothing at all for pleasure has doubled over a 20-year period. Yet the amount they read for school or homework (15 or fewer pages daily for 62% of students) has stayed the same.
  • More than 20 percent of adults read at or below a fifth-grade level – far below the level needed to earn a living wage.
    (National Institute for Literacy, Fast Facts on Literacy, 2001)
  • 50 percent of American adults are unable to read an eighth grade level book.
    (Jonathan Kozol, Illiterate America)
  • Children who have not developed some basic literacy skills by the time they enter school are 3 – 4 times more likely to drop out in later years.

(National Endowment for the Arts – “To Read or Not to Read”; corroborated by “Adult Literacy in America” a report from the National Center for Educational Statistics)

Providing time for reading is one of the best ways to foster the love of learning.  I guess we need to keep that in mind as our children get older. Reading for pleasure correlates strongly with better scores in reading and writing and somehow we need to foster a love of reading for children of all ages.

In our society our children expected to read, understand, appreciate, and even enjoy books.  But this doesn’t necessarily translate into deep reading and pleasure/leisure reading among teenagers and adults. Do you agree with Professor Jacobs that, Serious “deep attention” reading has always been and will always be a minority pursuit?



2 Responses

  1. May 4, 2014

    […] read the book and interviewed Lori was “Wait, are kids even READING for pleasure anymore?” What are the stats?  How can we amp up media literacy couched as a fun […]

  2. May 4, 2014

    […] read the book and interviewed Lori was “Wait, are kids even READING for pleasure anymore?” What are the stats?  How can we amp up media literacy couched as a fun […]

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