Reading & Literacy Commentary

It’s Not Just the Schools

By Sunil Iyengar & Mark Bauerlein — April 17, 2007 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 5 min read

Corrected: The print version of this story incorrectly referenced a television show.

The latest test scores for reading and math from the National Assessment of Educational Progress are bound to inspire renewed doubts about the public school system. (“Students Taking More Demanding Courses,” Feb. 28, 2007.) Why hasn’t the No Child Left Behind Act raised outcomes? How do popular classroom practices fall short of expectations? Do we need different teacher training, more technology, more school choice, more … what?

—Dave Cutler


We don’t know the answers to these questions, but we do know that as long as an analysis of outcomes focuses entirely on what happens within classroom walls, it will falter. Teaching methods count, to be sure, and curriculum does influence test performance. But another variable also plays a role—a great big one, in the case of reading.

We mean the leisure habits of teenagers. The reading that kids do in their spare time—whether of books, magazines, newspapers, or blogs—can affect reading scores far more than popular debates about education recognize.

Consider teenage leisure habits as measured simply by hours. Several years ago, Chester E. Finn Jr., a former assistant U.S. secretary of education and now the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, calculated the percentage of hours spent in class in an average 18-year-old’s lifetime. It came out to only 9 percent. “Consider what this means in terms of the leverage of formal education,” Finn concluded, “if much of what goes on during the other 91 percent is at cross-purposes to the values and lessons of school.” In reading class, the high school English teacher has about four hours of instructional time per week with students, and he or she is lucky to get an hour of homework out of them.

By contrast, high school students enjoy about 40 hours of leisure time per week. If a fair portion of that time goes toward reading, youth leisure will complement English class, and reading will play a regular part in a teenager’s formation. If leisure reading dips toward zero, English class and all the reading that goes with it will shrink to irrelevance.

There is no substitute for the sustained critical and imaginative work that occurs when a child or teenager reads a book, as opposed to glancing at Web headlines or skimming e-mails or blog entries.

This tendency is what we see in the 21st-century high school student. As other diversions have filled the leisure menu—more cable channels, cellphones, video games, social-networking sites, text-messaging—reading has diminished as an option. In 1946, a remarkable 92 percent of 15- to 19-year-olds had read a book in the previous year on their own. Television arrived, then Atari, then laptops, then “The Sims,” and more and more. By 2002, according to the National Endowment for the Arts, the number of 18- to 24-year-olds who had read a book, any book, within the past year had fallen to 50 percent.

Should we be surprised? The American Time Use Survey from the U.S. Department of Labor puts the reading time of 15- to 24-year-olds at only nine minutes per day. They watch TV for around 2½ hours. Indeed, TV watching occupies the most leisure time—about half—for men and women of all ages.

The same survey revealed that 15- to 24-year-olds play games and use the computer for fun for nearly 40 minutes daily, which is more than four times the amount of time they spend on leisure reading.

Even if we generously assume that some of that computer time involves reading texts online, we should acknowledge that, given the diversions offered by Web surfing and messaging, and the ephemeral subject matter of much Internet writing, many of those literary encounters are superficial at best. There is no substitute for the sustained critical and imaginative work that occurs when a child or teenager reads a book such as a good novel or an exciting history, often in multiple sittings, as opposed to glancing at Web headlines, for example, or skimming e-mails or blog entries.

Now consider another reading-related topic (besides unsatisfactory test scores) that has grabbed headlines recently. As reported in even the mainstream press, educational theorists are by no means on the same page when it comes to advising the best teaching method for early readers. Is it phonics, whole language, some hybrid approach, or none of the above?

While school reading programs peddle their rival curricula, cognitive scientists are busy proving that informal exposure to language—through heavy doses of leisure reading—can influence a child’s vocabulary growth far more than classroom training.

Fortunately, there is agreement on a more critical point: While school reading programs peddle their rival curricula, cognitive scientists are busy proving that informal exposure to language—through heavy doses of leisure reading—can influence a child’s vocabulary growth far more than classroom training.

Why is this claim significant? Vocabulary growth is the gateway to reading comprehension. If children remain limited in the number of words they can understand, their growth as readers is stunted to just that extent. This deficiency results in a vicious circle, one with poor readers encountering fewer books (and less difficult ones) than children who already have a strong vocabulary. The net result: Not only will test scores continue to disappoint, but poor readers also will have fewer and fewer opportunities to experience the joys of literary reading.

Cognitive researchers Anne Cunningham and Keith Stanovich have used statistics to measure the various ways that children come into informal contact with language—through adult speech, television, and printed texts. They found that in almost every single case, printed material provides children with more complex words than does watching TV or listening to adults talk. Even children’s books, it turns out, can improve a child’s vocabulary more than conversation overheard among college graduates can.

Yet another positive aspect of informal reading arose from a National Endowment for the Arts study on arts participation and civic engagement. Readers of literature were twice as likely as nonreaders to participate in a variety of civic and community events, such as playing and attending sports, canoeing, hiking, camping, exercising, and volunteering or doing charity work. Equally significant, avid readers on the whole were more likely than infrequent readers to engage in those activities. Leisure reading thus conveys benefits that are civic no less than academic.

As for reading scores, no matter how ingenious the school programs are, no matter how inventive the teachers, unless leisure reading jumps, things will only worsen. A couple of years ago, the U.S. Department of Education released data showing that students who read for fun are significantly higher scorers on reading tests than students who do not. We should be grateful for what little leisure reading is taking place: Without it, the latest test scores may well have come in at a dozen points lower.

A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2007 edition of Education Week as It’s Not Just the Schools


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