Why Aren't Young People Reading?

  • alphabet amount of instruction
  • 19 November, 2007

          The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has done a great service by trying to monitor how much young people and adults are reading.

http:Although I certainly agree with NEA on the importance of reading--especially extended reading of challenging and worthwhile text, and I suspect that NEA is right students and adults are doing less of such reading these days, I do have some disagreements with them.

          One concern is that I think their measurement of amount of reading is likely flawed. People are notoriously bad at reporting how they spend their time, unless they provide the information right then. Ask folks how much they read this morning and they'll give you a better answer than if you ask how often do you read or how much did you read last week. Also, in past studies, it is apparent that there are a wide range of interpretations of what it means to read for fun. For example, in one study, men said they never read at all, because they thought only fiction reading counted (though they read work materials and magazines about hunting, automobiles and other factual topics).

          My second and more important concern (the first matters, but let's face it, I'm quibbling) has to do with what the problem is and what the solution is. The NEA report seems to indicate that if students just read more they would read better, and lots of school teachers and professors would agree with that conclusion: this is the kids' problem and they can solve it themselves. Unfortunately, far too many of our kids can't read well enough that they would choose to read. Recent research is showing that the impact of reading on achievement is more complicated than was once thought; practice is a great idea, but not all kinds and amounts of practice serve to improve reading. For instance, I have no doubt that kids do a lot of IMing these days, but reading your buddy's 14 syllable message probably doesn't provide the same intellectual challenge--or payoff--that reading a demanding chemistry book could have. The solution isn't making reading into more of a duty, but making sure that more kids can engage it successfully. One interpretation of the problem would flood classrooms, homes, and communities with books; the other would improve the schools. Let's face it, this second approach is harder and more expensive, but it is the one that will more likely pay off eventually.

          It is ironic that the young people born during the past 25 years have had the benefits of more programs and school and community efforts to get them to read than any before it. Books have become more accessible, schools provide time for pleasure reading, pediatricians give books to parents, television networks encourage reading, book clubs have grown, instructional programs use library books rather than textbooks, and dozens of other efforts have been made.

          The outcomes of those efforts have been ably summarized in the NEA report--a generation that, in spite of lots of encouragement to read, chooses to read even less than those who received less institutional encouragement. Perhaps our efforts to make kids love reading have robbed kids of the sense that reading is a choice.

          In our zeal to make kids love reading, we have transformed reading into a duty; something that is good for you--like eating your vegetables--not something that is dangerous, fascinating, sexy, and individual. Think of the child with comic book and flashlight under the covers late at night sneaking a delectable, but unauthorized read. I almost expect to hear that schools are now assigning such reading (even sending home the flashlights), but that kind of authorization would only drain it of its joy.

          No wonder kids aren't reading as much as before.


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Why Aren't Young People Reading?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.