Young people reading a lot less

Report laments the social costs

Email|Print| Text size + By David Mehegan
Globe Staff / November 19, 2007

We know what young people are doing more of: watching television, surfing the Web, listening to their iPods, talking on cellphones, and instant-messaging their friends. But a new report released today by the National Endowment for the Arts makes clear what they're doing a lot less of: reading.

The report - a 99-page compendium of more than 40 studies by universities, foundations, business groups, and government agencies since 2004 - paints a dire picture of plummeting levels of reading among young people over the past two decades. Among the findings:

Only 30 percent of 13-year-olds read almost every day.

The number of 17-year-olds who never read for pleasure increased from 9 percent in 1984 to 19 percent in 2004.

Almost half of Americans between ages 18 and 24 never read books for pleasure.

The average person between ages 15 and 24 spends 2 to 2 1/2 hours a day watching TV and 7 minutes reading.

"This is a massive social problem," NEA chairman Dana Gioia, said by phone from Washington. "We are losing the majority of the new generation. They will not achieve anything close to their potential because of poor reading."

It is not just the amount of reading. According to the report, reading ability has fallen as well. While scores have improved for 9-year-olds, they dropped sharply for 17-year-olds. Only about a third of high school seniors read at a proficient level, a 13 percent decline since 1992. "And proficiency is not a high standard," Gioia said. "We're not asking them to be able to read Proust in the original. We're talking about reading the daily newspaper."

Apparently, things are not much better among college students. In 2005, almost 40 percent of college freshmen (and 35 percent of seniors) read nothing at all for pleasure, and 26 percent (28 percent of seniors) read less than one hour per week. Even among college graduates, prose-reading proficiency declined from 40 percent in 1992 to 31 percent in 2003.

The report incorporates national studies that have been carried out since the NEA's 2004 report, "Reading at Risk," found that literary reading - fiction, poetry, and plays - had crashed over 20 years among adult Americans. The new report, titled "To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence," focuses on reading in general, and it reaches down to younger age levels. While not all studies are exactly comparable in some details (such as time spans), overall they trend in the same direction.

"We took information from so many sources, you would expect some results in the opposite direction," Gioia said. "But I was impressed and depressed at how consistent the information was on the general decline in reading and reading ability."

Changes in young people's reading habits have not escaped notice in the publishing and library fields.

"I'm not hearing of a dramatically big drop, but I would say the number of serious readers, the kids who used to come in and get 20 and 30 books - we're just not seeing that," said Caroline Ward, a children's librarian in Stamford, Conn., who is past president of the children's division of the American Library Association. "We see some, but fewer than we used to."

The report found that the more books there are in a young person's home, the higher the average scores in science, civics, and history, all reading-based subjects. The report notes that average annual household spending on books, adjusted for inflation, dropped 14 percent between 1985 and 2005, and that consumer book sales declined 6 percent from 2000 to 2006.

The report does not explain why youth reading has declined, but Gioia said he suspects three main reasons: "First, something is not happening in our educational system. Second, we are surrounded by nonstop media, but for the most part it does not acknowledge reading. When the media made a celebrity of J.K. Rowling, 10 million people bought her book. Oprah Winfrey put 'Anna Karenina' on the best-seller list. Third, our lives are completely cluttered with a million gadgets."

Indeed, the report suggests that multitasking is a factor. It found that more than half of middle and high school students use other media most or some of the time while reading, and that 20 percent of the time they spend reading they are also watching TV, playing video games, sending messages, or otherwise using a computer.

Besides plotting statistical trends, the report cites economic consequences. Seventy-two percent of employers rated high school graduates deficient in writing, and 38 percent cited reading deficiency. One out of five American workers reads at a lower level than necessary to do his or her job. Not surprisingly, proficient readers are more likely to attain management jobs and higher incomes.

Possibly the most striking finding is that, regardless of income, levels of reading for pleasure correlate closely with levels of social life, voting, and political activism, participation in culture and fine arts, volunteerism, charity work, and even regular exercise.

"The poorest Americans who read did twice as much volunteering and charity work as the richest who did not read," Gioia said. "The habit of regular reading awakens something inside a person that makes him or her take their own life more seriously and at the same time develops the sense that other people's lives are real."

That finding confirms previous studies, said Timothy Shanahan, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and past president of the International Reading Association. "If you're low in reading ability, not only would you not read the newspaper, but you won't watch news on TV or listen to it on radio," Shanahan said. "You're less likely to take part in activities like sports or church. Being low in literacy is self-isolating, tends to push you out of culture altogether."

Patricia S. Schroeder, president and chief executive of the Association of American Publishers, said part of the problem could be that adults can make children feel that reading is a duty. A common complaint she hears from children and young adults is that few books relate to their lives or interests. "Reading is not really easy," she said, "unless they get into something they want to read about."

David Mehegan can be reached at

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