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Reading Down or Up? Not

Long post but reading is a key issue for libraries and informed strategies are based in good information.
I’ve been a member of the Stephen Krashen’s notification list for many years – ever since I heard him speak once at OLA and my various involvements in the role of school libraries. You can find out more about his work and subscribe to his announcment list here.He is one of the key thinkers and statistical iconoclasts about studies on NCLB and also reading. He is a must read for teacher-librarians.
Recently, there has been a lot of commentary (blog and mainstream media) about the NEA’s new study (“To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence,” at which echoes the findings of a 2004 study (“Reading at Risk”) but brings in more recent data from many more sources, including federal agencies, universities, nonprofit foundations and business research organizations.
“Among the findings: (read the article at
• Nearly half of all Americans ages 18 to 24 read no books for pleasure.
• People ages 15 to 24 spend only seven to 10 minutes per day on voluntary reading (about 60 percent less than the average American).
• Reading scores for 17-year-olds are down, while those for 9-year-olds are at an all-time high (ground that is lost in adolescence).
• Even while reading, 58 percent of middle- and high-school students are watching TV, listening to music or using other media.
• Literary readers among college graduates dropped from 82 percent in 1982 to 67 percent in 2002.”
It is a crying shame that these numbers have been regurgitated uncritically by the mainstream press so often.
Krashen brings forward a lot of good points and here are some of my favourite quotes from Krashen’s letters, notes and postings:
“The [Pasadena] Star is right: According to one of the studies (Kaiser M Generation) the NEA reported on, when you include reading magazines, newspapers, and the internet, young people are reading about an hour a day, much more than for book reading alone.
It is also not clear that young people are getting worse. Young children show no decline over the last two decades. The NEA says that reading scores for 17-year-olds have dropped since 1984, but the drop is only four points over 20 years, not much on a test in which the top 10% scored nearly 100 points more than the lowest 10%. If you choose a different year for comparison, there is no change at all: 17-year-olds today read just as well as 17-year-olds did in 1971.”
“A close reading of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) report, To Read or Not to Read, as well as other research on literacy shows that it is not clear at all whether people are reading less or reading worse these days. Here are just a few of the problems with the NEA report.
The NEA quotes a Pew study that reported that only 38% of adults in 2006 said they read a book the previous day. The NEA fails to note that in a Pew study done in 2002, that figure was 34%, and in 1945 it was 21% (Link and Hopf, People and Books, 1945).
The NEA says that teenagers do very little book reading, compared to younger readers, citing the Kaiser M Generation Project. But in a footnote, the NEA notes that if you add magazines and newspapers, there is no difference among the groups. If you add time reading from the internet, available in the Kaiser paper, teenagers report reading about an hour a day, much more than the seven to ten minutes reported in another study (American Time Use Survey) they cited.
The NEA tells us that college students read less than they did in high school. They don’t mention Hendel and Herrald’s study (College Student Journal, 2004). They found that college students read quite a bit and that book reading did not decline between 1971 and 2001.
Finally, all of these surveys are suspect. As Timothy Shanahan has pointed out (comment on Google, November 19), responders sometimes don’t think some kinds of reading are worth reporting. In one poll of teenagers, of 66 respondents who said they did “no reading” 49 checked several categories of leisure reading when asked what they liked to read (Mellon, School Library Journal, 1987).
The NEA also reported that reading scores for 17-year-olds declined from 1984 to 2004. But the 2004 national reading scores for 17-year-olds in 2004 are identical to those made by 17-year-olds in 1971. Whether there has or has not been a decline depends on which years you choose for the comparison. In addition, the “downward trend” since 1984 is quite small, four points on a test in which the highest 10% and lowest 10% differed by nearly 100 points, spread over 20 years. (The NEA did not claim there had been a decline for younger readers.)
The most outrageous misreporting in the NEA report is in table 5F, where we are told that test scores for the lowest scoring 10% of 17-year-olds dropped 14 points between 1992 and 2005. A look at the actual report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (The Nation’s Report Card: 12th Grade Reading and Mathematics, 2005) reveals that most of this happened between 1992 and 1994, a ten-point drop. Similarly, seven points of the nine-point drop between 1992 and 2004 for the lowest 25% occurred between 1992 and 1994. Clearly, something was wrong with one of those tests.
There have been complaints about the decline of literacy in the United States since 1874, when Harvard flunked more than half of its incoming freshman class on a writing test. There was no clear evidence of a decline then, and there isn’t any clear evidence of a decline now.”
“Research shows that better libraries and the presence of credentialed librarians result in higher reading scores on a wide variety of tests, including the national test of reading.”
“To Read or Not to Read also tells us that 38% of adults said they read something yesterday, citing a 2006 Pew report. But they do not mention that Pew reported that in 2002 the figure was less, 34%, and a major study of reading published in 1945 found that only 21% of those ages 15 and older said they read something yesterday, with the most reading done by
those lazy teenagers, ages 15-19, 34% (Link and Hopf, People and Books, 1945).
Adults are also reading less, according to To Read or Not to Read, and college students read less than they did in high school. Not mentioned, however, is one study showing that college students read quite a bit, and this has not changed over three decades. Hendel and Harrold (College Student Journal, 2004) surveyed the leisure activities reported by undergraduates
attending an urban university from 1971 to 2001. Among the questions asked were those related to leisure reading. In agreement with other studies Hendel and Harrold reported a decline in newspaper reading and reading news magazines, but there was no decline in reported book reading. On a scale of 1-3 (1 = never, 2 = occasionally, 3 = frequently), the mean for book reading in 1971 was 2.35; in 2001 it was 2.26, with only small fluctuations in the years between 1971 and 2001.
Moreover, the ranking for reading books was higher than that reported for attending parties (2.14 in 2001), going to the movies (2.16) and for all categories of watching TV (sports = 2.07). Reading held its own despite a clear enthusiasm for surfing the internet (2.78) and e-mail (2.84), both newcomers.
Are Americans reading worse? To Read or Not to Read also claims that children don’t read as well as they used to, and once again, it is the 17-year-olds who are to blame. We are told there has been a “slow downward trend” since 1984 on national reading tests (NAEP long-term trends). But if we chose a differen date as a starting point, there has been no change. Scores for 17-year-olds in 2004 are identical to scores achieved by 17-year-olds in 1971. And the “downward trend” from 1984 is not that large, only 4 points on a test in which the highest 10% averaged 333 and the lowest 235, a spread of nearly 100 points.”
“There is very little evidence to support USA Today’s statement that Americans “of every age are reading less and less for pleasure” (“Americans close the book on recreational reading,” November 19). The National Endowment for the Arts’ report only claimed that reading was declining for 17-year-olds and for adults, not for younger children, and even this claim is not
For example: The report, as USA Today noted, says that only 38% of adults in 2006 said they read a book the previous day. The report fails to note that in 2002, that figure was 34%, and in 1945 it was 21%. Also, when all kinds of reading are considered, including magazines, newspapers, and reading from the internet young people report reading about an hour a day.”
As for Canadians, we’re apparently reading more. See the Statistics Canada survey here. Let’s hope
Canada keeps education towards the front of our priorities. Costly but necessary.
People see my PPT slides that assert there is evidence that overall reading is up across all types of reading (Don’t even get me started on the reading skills needed for gaming). I worry that some of the research is driven by poor assumptions and special interests. Experts like Krashen who challenges the research on academic grounds are one reason why I think there are reasons for hope that there is a balanced view.
Library folk are definitely passionate about reading and have been for centuries. When poorly analyzed or reported ‘research’ attempts to position our efforts as failures or inadequate, we should fight back.
So the next time someone subjects you to a soundbite that says: “Nearly half of all Americans ages 18 to 24 read no books for pleasure,” you can respond that yes – since almost 40% of these folks are in higher education now after high school (versus 17% in the 60’s and 70’s) they’re getting an education and reading for purpose. They don’t have time to do it all while they get ready to take on the jobs of the future. They’ll come back to reading when they get their degrees and certifications and start competing with the Boomers for jobs.

Posted on: November 25, 2007, 9:04 am Category: Uncategorized

5 Responses

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  1. Reports like these bring up great conversation points. When people ask about this at my library, I can tell them that teen check-outs are up 58% from last year, that 90% of our population owns a library card, and that most of them used it this year.
    That usually is enough to end the conversation and get more money for our library 🙂

  2. Interesting post–thanks for the breakdown! Good point about the “reading no books for pleasure.” It’s true, I personally haven’t read any books for pleasure since August, but I’m in grad school: I’m reading for work, and I look forward to picking up a novel or something when the semester’s over.
    I also like the clarification of how ‘reading books’ gets implicitly assumed to be the only way anyone would read. I and people I know do incredible amounts of reading online and in newspapers and magazines. Books are great, but reading a book is not the only thing that counts as reading.

  3. Thanks for this. I did a fairly thorough takedown of the earlier NEA Reading at Risk nonsense, but haven’t even attempted to deal with this one–it’s too long, I’m too busy with my new job, and, well, I’d rather read. Maybe even literature. So it’s good to see this post.

  4. Linda Mc said

    Thank you for that post. I had thought that the research was flawed when I read that the decline in reading was related to reading ‘literature’. As a public librarian, I don’t notice any decline. Teenagers are reading on-line, magazines and as you say computer games. And how to we count audio books? In my experience many people now ‘listen’ to a book instead of reading it. Surely that must count somehow?

  5. Mary Piero Carey said

    They don’t seem to be factoring in the aging of the population, either. My 93yr old mother-in-law hasn’t been able to read a book for any reason for years, to her dismay. In caring for her, my husband’s available reading time has been cut in half, at best. My reading time has also been drastically reduced. Doesn’t mean we don’t want to read, just that we have less time for it.