Let me play the devil's advocate for just a moment. While I hear a collective sigh or shudder go from the ranks of librarians and teachers around the world on discovering research that shows teens are reading less, I always wonder if we really need to spend energy worrying about this.
Common Sense Media issued a report in May that shows:
- Reading rates have dropped precipitously among adolescents
- 53% of 9-year-olds vs.. 17% of 17-year-olds are daily readers
- The proportion who "never" or "hardly ever" read has tripled since 1984. A third of 13-year-olds and 45% of 17-year-olds say they've read for pleasure one to two times a year, if that
- Reading achievement among older teens has stagnated
- Reading scores of fourth- and eighth-graders have improved, but those of 12th-graders haven't changed in 30 years
- There's a persistent gap in reading scores between white, black, and Latino kids
- 18% black and 20% Latino fourth-graders are rated as "proficient" in reading compared to 46% of white kids at that age (this gap has been relatively unchanged over two decades)
- There's also a gender gap in reading across ages
- Girls read 10 minutes more per day than boys on average
- More girls are rated as "proficient" in reading than boys, by 12 percentage points
As a person who not only is always reading a book or two, but is nervous when he doesn't have a least a couple waiting in the wings, these numbers do look startling. However I also recognize that my view of reading and its value are very much a result of my own biases. Especially when it comes to reading as a cultural or recreational pursuit.
I would argue (and I have my librarian hat on here) we need to be more discriminating when making statements about reading, especially by teens. Some questions I ask myself:
1. Is any kind of reading by adolescents always good? Is reading itself a prima facie good, especially for already proficient readers? Like G. Robert Carlson and Stephen Krashen, I do believe any kind of reading builds reading skills, but what about kids who already read well? How is reading a crappy novel any less a time-waster than watching a crappy movie or playing a mindless video game?
2. Are there constructive things teens are doing that may be better than reading? I wonder what kids are doing with the time they previously spent reading. The adult knee-jerk reaction is that they are texting, playing games, or watching video. But is it as likely that they are writing, making movies, coding, or watching TedTalks? What if they were exercising, playing sports, participating in scouting, or working? I have no evidence this is the case, but I don't remember seeing much evidence that reading is simply being replaced by mind-numbing activities either.
3. If we are encouraging reading because it allows young adults to practice important skills, what skills are those exactly? Just how proficient a "reader" does one need to be in order to be a fully engaged citizen today? Newspapers and magazines are written at about an 8th grade reading level. YouTube has virtually replaced how-to manuals. Critical reading for bias and factual accuracy has grown in importance with the radical politicizing of the press, but does recreational reading make one a more critical reader?
4. Is reading "great literature" a cultural artifact that will be done by a minority of connoisseurs, similar in appeal to those who attend opera today? I suspect that reading classic literature has already become a pastime of a rather small group of "cultural elites." Who actually reads Chaucer or Shakespeare or Austin or Melville or Hemingway or any poet? I don't hear a great outcry that students are spending less time listening to classical music or watching ballet. Yet we fuss about students reading less with the assumption being that they are reading less quality literature or significant non-fiction. (See point number 1 above.)
Given the ubiquity of smart phones and tablets and whatever, is it any wonder that time spent reading by teens has tanked - especially when we in education make reading work rather than pleasure by insisting on trotting out Red Badge of Courage and Great Expectations as a required to considered an educated human being. (See 4 Ways High School Makes You Hate Reading.) Heck, I spend less time reading (and more time writing, viewing, playing, Tweeting, blogging, etc.) and I like to read.
Worry-warts, get over it. Kids may be reading less, but it doesn't signal the end of civilization as we know it. Kids playing smart video games just may be an improvement over kids reading dumb books.