February 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Where, What, How, and Why Teens Do and Don’t Read | Consider the Source

By Seeta Pai, Vice President of Research, Common Sense Media

r-STUDENT-READING-large570Are teens reading less today than they did in previous decades? What kinds of “reading” count? The answers―as Marc Aronson discussed in his May 22, 2014 post for this column, “Are Teenagers Reading Less?―are complex. In our research brief Children, Teens, and Reading, Common Sense Media conducted a review of secondary data from large national surveys to address questions about trends in reading for pleasure, as well as reading achievement, as measured by typical assessments. Marc raised some excellent points regarding teen reading and invited our response.

Daily Reading In and Out of School. Our first finding about the drop in teens’ daily reading over time does not cover reading in/for school―it only addresses non-school “reading for pleasure” or “reading for fun”―as defined by the Scholastic and National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) National Assessment of Educational Progress surveys we reviewed. We don’t intend to imply that school reading somehow doesn’t count or isn’t a valuable, pleasurable form of reading. We do agree that if there were a way to count reading for school, daily reading rates (across all types of reading) may be higher. Perhaps NCES, Scholastic, and the authors of other studies should cover all reading, including reading for school? (As Marc pointed out in an email communication, this broader definition raises its own set of methodological issues!) And, as a community of researchers, we should decide whether voluntary reading for fun/pleasure is a valid or important measure to pay attention to, and decide how it should be defined.

Reading For All or Some? Marc writes in the column, “Are we correcting for different students and different reading loads, or are we averaging all youth, and thus creating, at best, dubious numbers?” In the brief, we indicate that our review is limited to broad, national trends averaging all types of students across the country, in all types of schools. We’d completely agree that different types of students with different life circumstances, schooling environments, college aspirations, etc., would have different reading profiles, but we also wonder whether there’s some heft to broad trends over time and across multiple studies (we do cover some demographic differences where data in the studies we reviewed was available). Again, Common Sense Media feels that more research is needed (and more insights from practitioners) on how to document, communicate, and work with the varied reading paths of young people today.

Access to Read, Time to Read. Marc made the point that our brief did not cover teen access to reading materials and time available for reading. He’s right. The studies we reviewed do not include these variables. As he pointed out, in the Common Sense Media blog post we mentioned that the demands on teens’ time as they grow older is a known phenomenon, and we’d be first to agree that access to high quality reading of all kinds is a key differentiator of young people. Reading frequency has long been correlated with parent education and parent income. For example, one of the data trends we point out is the correlation of reading frequency with the number of print books in the home. Again, we’d recommend that such variables measuring the opportunity to read would be important to cover in national studies that chart these trends (especially among teens; there’s more research on young children’s access). At the same time, if we’re seeing broad trends over time (we covered differences in recent surveys compared to those from 1971 and 1984), there may be something important going on―and we’re calling for more research to help unpack and understand these trends.

What and How Are Kids Reading? Marc is probably right that many young people wouldn’t include their interaction with certain types of texts as “reading for pleasure,” and that the adults in their lives may not, either. As educators and researchers, we can do a better job of including different types of reading, across platforms and genres, when we conduct research on reading trends. There are large frontiers on the youth reading landscape we know relatively little about even though they’re increasingly relevant and prevalent. For instance, we devote an entire section of the brief to e-reading and call for more research on this topic. Likewise, there are fledgling research efforts to study reading of short-form electronic texts and its links to reading trends and skills.

In sum, we completely agree with Marc that our brief raises more questions than it answers, and that it would be great to have more research on all types of reading for all types of readers! (This was one of the goals of the brief to uncover areas in need of further research.) And we’re also in complete agreement that finding more opportunities for kids to read and to be engaged is a task we could all turn our attention to. Engagement is perhaps a better yardstick than pleasure or fun, and one that we at Common Sense Media use when we talk about learning so that it’s clear we’re not dichotomizing “fun” and “work” in the first place.

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