Young Americans Reading Less, Testing Lower
> 11/20/2007 1:38:11 PM

Perhaps the most discouraging news to hit the American education world in some time comes not from an assessment of failing schools, unqualified teachers or parents demanding a greater degree of choice but from the National Endowment for the Arts. In To Read or Not To Read, the follow-up report to their 2004 study Reading at Risk, NEA researchers name the major reason so many high-school students post mediocre reading scores on standardized tests: they aren't actually reading much at all. Perusing unrequired texts for pleasure would appear to be all but fictional among high schoolers and young adults. The behavior doesn't end there: the average American adult claimed to have read only 4 books in 2006, and 25% read none.
These trends, NEA experts suggest, not only mirror reading test scores, they help bring the unsatisfactory performances about: reading scores have shown promising signs of improvement at the elementary school level in the last few years, but they continue to decline into the high school years when recreational reading levels are lowest; the average 15-24 year-old spends 2 hours each day watching television and 7 minutes reading. Statistics also revealed, unsurprisingly, that the more often kids read, the higher they score on the reading and comprehension portions of standardized tests. How could students maintain or even improve their scores if they refuse to read anything beyond the bare minimum required for class? The reading proficiency of our population in general has decreased in the last 15 years for every sample, including the best-educated. The study also found the influence of reading to extend to other subjects, noting that children who lived in homes with more books scored higher on math tests as well, even when controlling for socioeconomic factors.

Before sequestering your child in a locked tower accompanied only by the highlights of Western literature and an endless amount of free time, consider the possibility that the NEA has drawn upon its considerable capacity for exaggeration to produce those dire, attention-grabbing pronouncements. In fact, publishing industry insiders assert that a new golden age of young-adult literature has landed, with teens buying books at rates unequaled since the 1940's (and they're just not reading the Hardy Boys and the Babysitters Club). These numbers may die down slightly with the end of the Harry Potter series, but it certainly seems like millions of teens are reading something in their free time. So whose sweeping generalization is closer to the truth?

No one is specifically asserting that Americans don't read. Our literacy levels are obviously far higher than they were at the beginning of the 20th century, and the changing media environment has altered the very idea of what constitutes reading. The current report considered some of the criticisms made of its 2004 predecessor, expanding the definition of reading to include studies based on less specific questions regarding "reading for fun" that could include any form of text from hardcovers to glossies and blogs.

So most people are not particularly passionate about the act of reading or willing to explore the considerable ranks of literature collected over centuries and currently available at one's local chain store; they seem perfectly happy that their reading habits remain limited, for the most part, to newspapers, magazines and web content. We've certainly been blessed with an abundance of each, though quality waffles and the visually oriented click-through nature of the internet does not lend itself to the act of absorbing lengthy texts. Reading Dostoyevsky online, while possible, will most likely leave one with a headache and a compromised sense of depth perception.

Of course, this debate is nothing new. Critics have long implied the end of literature as we know it. Recently deceased literary titan Norman Mailer (don't worry, I haven't read him either) declared that "the novel is on the way out," to his own chagrin and the detriment of society at large. But the printed word will always have a place in our culture, and the fact that millions of young people, teens and a suprising number of adults raised a series of 900-page books about a certain young wizard to unprecedented blockbuster status over the past decade is encouraging. There's no question that our instant-gratification TV / Internet culture does not lend itself to hours spent in quiet solitude with well-placed words. We should take every opportunity to read directly to our children and, when they're old enough, remind them how much great writing there is to be perused. But expecting 16 year-olds to spend their evenings voluntarily poring over Proust or Flaubert is more than a bit ridiculous (unless you remind them that those who read more also, on average, make more money).

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