A national study just released by the National Endowment for the Arts warns that the sustainability of American culture is at risk because our society is turning more and more toward electronic media for information and entertainment and we are reading less and less as a result. Big surprise, right? However, as NEA Chairman Dana Gioia comments in the preface to "To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence," we all should be shocked by the magnitude of the decline of reading for pleasure in this country, especially among young people.
Among the study’s more dire findings:
- Only 30% of 13-year-olds read for pleasure on a regular basis.
- The number of 17-year-olds who never read for pleasure increased from 9% in 1984 to 19% in 2004.
- The average American between ages 15 and 24 spends only 7 minutes a day reading and half never read books for pleasure.
There are numerous causes for alarm, says the NEA. To begin with, a strong correlation exists between reading for pleasure and overall reading proficiency. Reading test scores for 9-year-olds—who show no declines in voluntary reading—are at an all-time high, while scores for 17-year-olds began a steady downward trend in 1992. Today, little more than a third of high school seniors read proficiently and even among college graduates reading proficiency is declining at a 20-23% rate.
The drop in proficiency then has serious economic implications. Currently, 38% of employers find high school graduates deficient in reading comprehension, while the ability to communicate effectively in writing tops the list of applied skills found lacking in high school and college graduates alike. Moreover, 20% of workers read and write at a lower skill level than their job requires; and as a result, corporate employers are spending $3.1 billion for remedial courses and state employers $221 million annually.
And then there is the cultural price of a citizenry that no longer finds reading an enjoyable and personally rewarding act. Literary readers, researchers discovered, are more than 3 times as likely as non-readers to visit museums, attend plays or concerts, and create artwork of their own. They are also more likely to engage in athletic and outdoor activities. Given the explosive growth of obesity in America, this last item is especially worrisome.
Perhaps most troubling of all are the social costs: 18- to 34-year-olds, whose reading rates are the lowest for any adult age group under 65, are showing significant declines in civic participation. 85% of frequent readers voted in the 2000 presidential election, for example, compared with only 53% of infrequent readers. Moreover, literary readers are more than twice as likely to engage in volunteer and charitable work.
Unfortunately the report makes little attempt to explore the sources of the problem—other than to state the obvious fact that young people spend an enormous number of waking hours interacting with one electronic medium or another—or to discuss its solution, which as I see it are one and the same. It lets our educational system entirely off the hook by failing to point out, as Jim Trelease did all the way back in the early 1980s, that fewer and fewer teachers read aloud to their students any more. At the time Trelease was an award-winning artist and journalist making weekly volunteer visits to the schools in his community to talk with students about art and journalism as careers. He noticed that most of the students didn’t like to read very much, but the ones who did nearly always came from classrooms where the teachers read aloud every day. His observations inspired him to write The Read-Aloud Handbook, which remained on the New York Times bestseller list for seventeen weeks and is still in print today.
The current obsession with standards has caused schools to turn reading almost entirely into a dry proficiency function so that students will be able to pass end-of-the-year, high-stakes standardized tests. Teachers are under so much pressure to cram right answers into beleaguered brains that they don’t have the wherewithal to introduce young children to the magical realm of literature in ways that are inviting and pleasurable, and then to reinforce the joy and majesty of reading as they grow older.
Likewise the time-honored tradition of reading aloud to children is fast disappearing at home. More and more parents are either feeling too stressed out to take the time to read bedtime stories, or they have allowed the insatiable media monsters to devour those precious, end-of-the-day moments.
I don’t know if there was ever a problem with a simpler solution. When we read compelling literature aloud to young children—and don’t stop until they’re teenagers—it is guaranteed that they will internalize the beauty and excitement of a story well told. Reading for pleasure becomes an old friend they never want to part with.
Meanwhile, reading to kids is not only the best way to ensure they will become lifelong lovers of literature, it is arguably one of the best ways to teach them to read in the first place. According to Maryanne Wolf in her new book Proust and the Squid, while children are listening to stories their brains automatically lay down the neurological infrastructure necessary for decoding written language.
Wolf is Director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University, where for the past ten years she has been studying how the brain masters reading and how best to intervene when there are breaks in the program. But her concerns extend beyond the learning process itself. She hearkens back to Socrates’ fear that the degradation of the oral tradition, which he witnessed in his lifetime, would lead to a diminishment both of individual intellectual capacity and of the level of morality and virtue in society as a whole. Wolf finds Socrates’ arguments prescient and cautionary, and like the NEA she rues the day when the written tradition goes down the drain as well.
So, all you parents, teachers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and babysitters out there; switch off the boob tubes, video games, and computers; put away the textbooks, quizzes, and worksheets; and read or tell stories to the children in your care.
And above all don’t turn these sessions into lessons. Do it just for fun.
Chris Mercogliano is the author of In Defense of Childhood: Protecting Kids' Inner Wildness. He has been a teacher at the Albany Free School since 1973 and codirector since 1985. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, and he is also the author of Making It Up As We Go Along, and Teaching the Restless: One School's Remarkable No-Ritalin Approach to Helping Children Learn and Succeed.