February 18, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

New Report Shows ‘Dramatic Drop in Reading Among Teens’

ProficiencyOn May 12, Common Sense Media announced the release of “Children, Teens, and Reading,” a research brief that offers a unique, big-picture perspective on children’s reading habits in the United States and how they may have changed during the technological revolution of recent decades.

From children’s earliest ages, “reading” used to mean sitting down with a book and turning pages as a story unfolded. Today it may mean sitting down with a device that offers multimedia experiences and blurs the line between books and toys. At the same time, for older children, much daily communication is now handled in short bursts of written text, such as text messages, emails, Facebook posts, and tweets.

“Technology is playing an increasingly significant role in kids’ lives, and it’s changing the nature of how kids read and our definition of what is considered reading,” said Jim Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense Media. “Used wisely, technology such as ereaders could help support ongoing efforts to reduce disparities, promote reading achievement, and fuel a passion for reading among all young people, but we need more research to better understand the impact of technology on kids’ reading.”

Though the report finds that reading is still a big part of many children’s lives—and reading scores among young children have improved steadily—achievement among older teens has stagnated, and many children don’t read well or often.

“This review brings together many different government, academic, and nonprofit data sets to reveal some very clear trends,” said Vicky Rideout, senior advisor to Common Sense Media, head of VJR Consulting, and director of more than 30 previous studies on children, media, and health. “There has been a huge drop in reading among teenagers over the past 30 years, and we’ve made virtually no progress reducing the achievement gaps between girls and boys or between whites and children of color. The bottom line is there are far too many young people in this country who don’t read well enough or often enough.”

Among the report’s key findings:

  • Reading rates have dropped precipitously among adolescents.

The proportion of children who are daily readers drops markedly from childhood to the tween and teenage years. One study documents a drop from 48 percent of 6 to 8-year-olds down to 24 percent of 15 to 17-year-olds who are daily readers; another shows a drop from 53 percent of 9-year-olds to 19 percent of 17-year-olds. According to government studies, since 1984, the percentage of 13-year-olds who are weekly readers went down from 70 percent to 53 percent, and the percent of 17-year-olds who are weekly readers went from 64 percent to 40 percent. The percent of 17-year-olds who never or hardly ever read tripled during this period, from 9 percent to 27 percent.

  • A significant reading achievement gap persists between white, black, and Hispanic children.

Government test scores indicate that white students continue to score 21 or more points higher, on average, than black or Hispanic students. Only 18 percent of black and 20 percent of Hispanic fourth graders are rated as “proficient” in reading, compared with 46 percent of whites. The size of this “proficiency gap” has been largely unchanged over the past two decades

  • There is also a gender gap in reading time and achievement.

Girls read for pleasure for an average of 10 minutes more per day than boys, a gap that starts with young children and persists in the teenage years. It’s also reflected in achievement scores, with a gap of 12 percentage points in the proportion of girls vs. boys scoring “proficient” in reading in the eighth grade in 1992 and 11 points in 2012.

The “Children, Teens, and Reading” research brief reviews national surveys and databases for trends in children’s and teens’ reading and reading achievement. Studies covered include the National Assessment of Educational Progress by the National Center for Education Statistics, The Kaiser Family Foundation’s Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds, Scholastic’s Kids and Family Reading Report (4th Edition), Northwestern University’s Parenting in the Age of Digital Technology, Common Sense Media’s Zero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in America 2013, and The Joan Ganz Cooney Center’s Learning at Home: Families’ Educational Media Use in America.



  1. I’d like to bring up a point about teens and reading as it affects those in my community (and in my house.) I have two teenaged daughters who love reading, but they have almost no time to read books of their own choosing. During the school year they are assigned book after book after book to read for English classes. My older daughter takes AP English so her summer reading is dictated, as well. We’re talking multiple books totaling 1000+ pages, plus “journal entries,” essays, etc., to be completed before class begins in the fall. I’m wondering if anyone is looking at the impact this is having on YA book sales? Teens who love to read, those who would be snapping up and devouring all the exciting new releases are missing out because they simply don’t have the time. While I believe these assignments are excessive, (that’s another conversation!) I’m not disputing the value of the literature they are assigned; I’m just thinking this is something to consider as it relates to this particular segment teen readers.

    • Tonya Dagstani says:

      I sponsor a Battle of the Books team at our high school. I lose all of my juniors each year because, in VA, it’s the most involved year due to the majority of our state mandated tests being given at that time in a high school career. The curriculum is so demanding that it leaves little or no time for these avid readers to read for pleasure. It’s been a track record…I have very devoted kids for their freshman, sophomore, and senior years. Junior year, they all drop Battle.

  2. Michelle Coates, MLIS says:

    We need to teach teens to use reading to unwind and destress. We need to show teens how reading can be entertaining and relaxing.

  3. Mary Anne Bowman says:

    I agree with Ruth. I think our teens don’t have the time. Here is a great article that talks about this issue.


  4. Debbie Fletcher says:

    I also agree with Ruth. My two sons were both big readers but in high school had no time to read for pleasure. My older son, now out of college, has happily taken to reading again. I see the same thing in my library.

  5. I recently had 6,7,and 8th graders tour our library. I’ve reached out to them to promote reading through playaways, books on cd, magazines, graphic novels, new books, and comics. I realized they are also connected to their Ipads, laptops, and phones. Overdrive and ebooks are great ways for students to connect for even a short time to reading. This is the age students downslide in reading, especially over the summer, and it’s important to catch them even if they are reading a newspaper, brochure, the back of the cereal box. Read for fun over the summer. Emphasizing the fact that they can read is a good tactic to show them. For example the signs on the bathroom doors for men and women. The enter and exit. What would they do if they couldn’t read the signs? I agree time is also the problem to come to the library as older students are busy working, taking care of siblings, can’t drive and live away from the library. That’s why online and having a website pulls them into the picture so that they know reading is available to them in some form. Putting books in their hands is a key. We have donated books to the middle school summer book drive. Teachers are handing out a book to each student before school is out so they have a book to read over the summer. What a great idea!