Earlier this month, a new study, “Children, Teens, and Reading,” reported alarming statistics about the decline of reading among teenagers. Or, that’s the way the results of the study were reported in many respected news sources. I was about to give a couple of keynote addresses on reading, so I rushed to read the paper–and that’s where the trouble started.
The study does more to indicate what we do not know about teenagers and their reading habits than to help us understand what reading material does occupy their interest.
The “research brief” released by Common Sense Media (CSM), is actually a careful aggregation of what one assumes are equally careful studies conducted by respected and prestigious groups such as the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES); Scholastic; CSM; and the Kaiser Family Foundation. CSM is duly cautious–pointing out in detail that what “reading” means varied from study to study, and that the different organizations used distinct, and at times incommensurate, methodologies to gather information. But they miss an issue so central that its absence becomes a looming presence: school.
The first “Key Finding” is that “daily reading rates and reading for fun have dropped precipitously in recent years among adolescents.” This finding is based on a Scholastic study that shows that while 48 percent of 6-to-8-year-olds are “daily readers,” this is true of only 24 percent of 15-to-17-year-olds. Does this last statistic reflect the healthy dose of “daily reading” assigned to many teenagers in school? Indeed, if one looked at the total amount of daily reading, I suspect that–at least among college-bound young adults–the rates would be higher. What about those teens who aren’t planning on college? The question–unasked, and thus unaddressed–is whether there has been a change, or decline, in their volume of reading. Are we measuring total reading, or only non-school reading? Are we correcting for different students and different reading loads, or are we averaging all youth, and thus creating, at best, dubious numbers?
The focus of the study becomes evident in the next statistic listed under “Key Findings”; a NCES study claims that that since 1984, “the proportion of tweens and teens who read for pleasure once a week or more has dropped from 81% to 76% among 9-year-olds, from 70% to 53% among 13-year-olds, and from 64% to 40% among 17-year-olds.” Here, it’s clear that the study did not measure total time spent reading, but rather, reading defined as not for school or work. Still, that doesn’t remove school from the picture.
We need to understand a young person’s complete reading life. For example, what about that student interested in military history who enjoys reading about battles or generals covered in class, or the student interested in other novels by an author whose work was discussed? Does a student consider the instructions read in pursuing a hobby reading? What if that hobby overlaps with school? I contend that for most adult professionals it’s often impossible to draw a clear line between work and leisure reading.
The CSM study does consider some of the familiar variables in reading–gender, race, and ethnicity–but once again it (and/or the studies it aggregates) missed a key consideration: access and time. If there is a decline in reading for pleasure, are the causes the same for readers with many devices as for those with few? Can we really say anything meaningful about leisure reading if we group together and then average those teens that have a steady diet of after-school test-prep tutoring and those who need to earn money, or care for siblings? If so, we’re just saying that, for a number of reasons many teenagers are busy–a fairly useless conclusion.
I finished reading the CSM brief with far more questions than answers. So, I asked if I could speak with one of their researchers. As of yet, I haven’t heard back. And, indeed, a few days later CSM released its follow-up email blast: “4 Surprising Findings About Kids’ and Teens’ Reading, Plus What You Can Do to Help Kids Read More.” The suggestions were thoughtful–read yourself, read to your younger children to get them started, be platform agnostic–and sound. I was encouraged to see parents urged to treat all reading–from a few characters on a screen to blogs to fan fiction–as reading. But I would like to reframe the problem, and thus suggest new ways to look for solutions.
We need to look at total reading time–what is happening in schools, in which schools, and with which teenagers. How does school reading intersect with “pleasure reading,” and can a clear line be drawn between them? When a teacher assigns a graphic novel that a student was planning to read, where does that book fall? When a student discovers that an assigned novel or poem or play or history book is interesting, does that assignment become pleasure? All of these questions need to be explored. Then, if we determine that reading for pleasure is indeed changing or declining, we need to look at both why–defined by the different pressures on different students–and what can be done.
I suspect that a key issue is that while many teenagers have enjoyable reading experiences, some young adults do not look forward to reading with the same avidity as their peers (or parents) decades ago. However, I’m hesitant to make that statement because the “decline from a golden age” is such an easy story to tell. I don’t have hard numbers that I trust on real teenage reading across gender, class, race, ethnicity in the past. But if there has been a shift, what we need to do is not just honor all reading –as CSM suggests–but to keep offering new doors, new opportunities, and new options to teenagers. A graphic novel one day, a cool app the next, a novel on a third day, or a poem, a play, an investigative article, a description of a new discovery. The idea is to keep opening doors, so occasional readers recognize that there is something of interest–something appealing, stimulating, or unexpected–waiting for them when they do take time to read.
To explore this idea, I contacted Dr. William Boerman-Cornell, an Assistant Professor of Education at Trinity Christian College whose area of study includes the use of graphic novels in schools. Bill talked about how for him, and for some readers he knows, the key to reading is “flow”–that state of being “lost in a book.” Comics and graphic novels, like the fantasy novels his daughter consumes, make it easy for some to be in that state. But as he spoke I realized that “being in the flow” is very different for me. I am transported by a text when it sparks ideas, when it suggests comparisons to another text, when it inspires me to want to think or act in new ways. We are in the old categories established by Louise Rosenblatt: “aesthetic” and “efferent reading.” Except that for her–and I suspect everyone since who had split off “pleasure reading” from “reading for school or work”–reading where you give over to the text, and the words carry you away, is pleasure, whereas reading for information and meaning is work. I disagree. Either form of reading can be pleasure–it depends on the reader and the text.
While we take the time to determine if there really is a reading decline, I suggest we use our energy to focus on increasing reading opportunities.