What 'cha reading?

[Editor's Note: The following editorial draws on the 2004 long-term trend NAEP results. These should not be confused with the 2005 "main NAEP" reading results discussed in our October 19 press release, Gains on State Reading Test Evaporate on 2005 NAEP.]

In times not too-far gone, if you wanted to get to know someone you asked him what he was reading. Today, the question is a joke, especially among teens.

"Reading - for fun?" (Big smile, followed by loud laugh.) "But seriously, how many tunes are on your i-Pod?"

The decline in leisure reading is no laughing matter, however. In fact, the Department of Education's report, NAEP 2004 Trends in Academic Progress: Three Decades of Student Performance in Reading and Mathematics, which was released this summer, offers some tantalizing information that suggests a connection between students' generally poor performance on academic reading tests and their declining leisure-reading habits.

Let's consider academic reading scores first. Among nine-year-olds, the news is very good. Their performance on the NAEP 2004 showed significant gains over previous assessment years. In fact, 2004 recorded this age group's highest scores ever. But thirteen-year-olds improved not at all between 1999 and 2004, and as a group they've only improved slightly since 1971.  For seventeen-year-olds, there is no measurable difference between their scores in 2004 and 1971. Further, the percentage of seventeen-year-old students deemed capable of understanding "complicated information" fell 3 percentage points, from 41 percent in 1994 to 38 percent a decade later.

Now consider a chart buried deep in the report that records how often students read "for fun" - not for homework or for the workplace, but for their own pleasure. Among seventeen-year-olds, the number who "never or hardly ever" read rose 10 percentage points, while those who read for fun "almost every day" fell 9 percentage points from 1984 to 2004. Thirteen-year-olds followed a similar pattern. Those who reported reading "almost every day" dropped 5 percentage points, while those who read "never or hardly ever" rose 5 percentage points.

And what of the nine-year-olds, whose reading scores are up? Their leisure reading is also up, slightly. Those who report reading "almost every day" rose 1 percentage point since 1984, while those who reported reading "never or hardly ever" dropped 1 percentage point.  That more than half of nine-year-olds (54 percent) reported reading for fun practically all the time is significant in itself, but that their numbers have remained firm while the older students' have plummeted deserves attention.  At the very least, with achievement in each age group correlated with outside reading, we should widen our vision to consider the role of books in the leisure hours of teenagers.

There is an impressive and growing body of survey research on leisure reading that complements the NAEP 2004 study.  A year earlier, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) surveyed more than 17,000 adults on their reading habits.  (I was the study's project director.)  The ensuing report, Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, showed that from 1992 to 2002 the number of 18- to 24-year-olds who read at least one novel, story, poem, or play in the previous 12 months fell from 53 percent to 43 percent.  At the same time, the portion of adults reading any book at all fell 8 points, from 59 percent to 51 percent.


A few months later, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its American Time Use Survey.  That survey asked more than 21,000 respondents to document their activities during the day, including work, sleep, school, and leisure activities.  Among the leisure activity options listed on the survey was reading of any kind. Among fifteen- to 24-year-old respondents, the average number of minutes spent per day reading was a meager 8 minutes - Eight!

Soon thereafter, UCLA issued its 2004 American Freshman Survey, which showed that the number of entering college students who never read for pleasure rose five percentage points from 1994 to 2004.


The NEA, BLS, and UCLA surveys all measure voluntary reading, not reading for school.  The NAEP report did ask about assigned reading in school and for homework Unfortunately, though, there are no surprises.  Nine-year-olds are reading more in school, while seventeen-year-olds report no change.

Clearly, teens are spending their leisure hours on activities unrelated to homework or pleasure reading. It doesn't take another study to prove what most adults already know about how teens spend their leisure time, but we have one nonetheless. Last March, the Kaiser Foundation's study, Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year-olds, found that kids in this age group consume fully eight-and-a-half hours of media per day in just six-and-a-half hours. How do they do this? Multi-tasking! Teenagers will watch television, for example, while downloading music. Cell phones are an added diversion. NOP World Technology's mKids Study (2005) found that 75 percent of fifteen- to seventeen-year-olds, and 40 percent of twelve- to fourteen-year-olds, own cell phones.

This avalanche of diversions is consuming teenagers' out-of-school hours.  As a result, when analyzing reading scores we need to add the voluntary reading habits of teenagers to our ongoing concerns over curriculum, pedagogy, and school policy.   Consider the proportions.  English teachers have a student, on average, for five hours a week in class. They may also use homework to demand students' attention for a few additional hours.  Outside of this, however, young people are chatting, surfing, blogging, recording, downloading, and playing computer games.  Many of these are, to be sure, language activities, but they don't help develop verbal aptitude.  (If they did, we'd see a spike in reading scores for seventeen-year-olds.) 

All this means that during the semester, teens spend about eight hours a week reading, and up to 50 hours on various other forms of media. The imbalance is worse during vacation periods. The monumental reform efforts in the public schools may continue, but if reading scores among teens are to improve, the leisure habits of high school students had better change.

- Mark Bauerlein is Professor of English at Emory University, and recently served as Director of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts.

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