Education

Government Report Finds Reading Slump

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — November 19, 2007 3 min read
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This article was originally published in Education Week.

American youths are reading less in their free time than a generation ago, a statistic that bodes poorly for their academic performance, job prospects, civic participation, and even social well-being, a report by the National Endowment for the Arts says.

Increasing use of electronic media is largely to blame for a decline in pleasure reading among young people, says the report, released today. But the failure of schools to instill a love of reading is also a contributing factor, according to endowment Chairman Dana Gioia.

“The study shows that reading is endangered at the moment in the United States, especially among younger Americans … and not merely the frequency of reading, but the ability to read as well,” Mr. Gioia said in a telephone conference call with reporters before the report’s release. The emphasis in many schools on bolstering reading skills and preparing students for tests, he added, is insufficient for nurturing an appreciation of reading.

“This functional approach to reading,” he said, “is not adequate to instill a lifelong love of the subject.”

The report, “To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence,” analyzes data from surveys—including the endowment’s 2004 survey on literary reading—as well as national assessments, independent reports, and other federal statistics. It synthesizes information on the nation’s teenagers and adults ages 18 to 24.

The report draws “three unsettling conclusions,” stating: “Americans are spending less time reading”; “reading-comprehension skills are eroding”; and the “declines have serious civic, social, cultural, and economic implications.”

A Successful Habit

Fewer than one-fourth of 17-year-olds, for example, read almost every day for fun, and young people 15 to 24 read 10 minutes or less a day, on average, according to various federal statistics. During their voluntary reading time—time spent reading texts not required for school or work—middle and high school students regularly watch television, listen to music, or use other media.

The report notes that those shifts in voluntary reading have occurred at a time when scores on national assessments have remained flat and large proportions of secondary students have failed to demonstrate proficiency in the subject.

Reading appears to have a significant correlation with success in school and the workplace, the report says.

“People who read outside of school or work volunteer at twice the rate of those who don’t, they are three times more likely to participate in the arts, they earn higher wages, they are twice as likely to exercise, they vote at one and a half times the level of people who don’t read,” Mr. Gioia said. “Among people who read, there is not merely a cultural transformation going on,” he said, “the habit of reading does seem to awaken something in the individual.”

The findings repeat those found in the earlier survey by the endowment, which looked primarily at how frequently young people read literature, but the new report adds data on other genres.

Even so, some observers say the study leaves an incomplete picture, because it does not consider the kind of reading young people are asked to do in high school and college.

Will Fitzhugh, the founder and president of the Concord Review, a scholarly journal that publishes exemplary history-research papers by high school students, has been promoting the need to assign more nonfiction reading to middle and high school students, particularly history texts. He has found little support among foundations or government agencies for launching a study of nonfiction reading among high school students. Such reading is an indicator, he believes, of how well they are prepared to do college-level work.

The endowment’s report “still leaves open the big question of what kind of reading is assigned in school and college,” and whether it is adequate for challenging kids intellectually, Mr. Fitzhugh said. “The consequences for employment and adult reading habits are at least as much the result of the [required] reading done in high school and college as pleasure reading, but that’s what’s left out.”

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