Wednesday, November 28, 2007


"Today a reader, tomorrow a leader." -- Margaret Fuller

As a parent, most of the time, you feel pretty clueless. You do the best you can, try to instill good habits and manners with your child without stunting their creativity. So, it's gratifying when you have those seemingly spontaneous moments where it is obvious that you must have been doing at least something right. One of those occasions was last night about 7:00. It's prime TV viewing time and all three of us are sitting in the family room reading books ... by choice. Alex, at 6 years old, has become a voracious reader and is reading well beyond his age level. He'll probably be reading Harry Potter books within a year.

He could have been playing a game on a computer or watching TV, but he chose to read. But this is not the rule for most kids these days. I was listening to NPR the other day and they spoke of a recent National Endowment for the Arts study which I have excerpted here:

Washington, DC -- Today, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) announces the release of To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence, a new and comprehensive analysis of reading patterns in the United States. To Read or Not To Read gathers statistics from more than 40 studies on the reading habits and skills of children, teenagers, and adults. The compendium reveals recent declines in voluntary reading and test scores alike, exposing trends that have severe consequences for American society.

"The new NEA study is the first to bring together reliable, nationally representative data, including everything the federal government knows about reading," said NEA Chairman Dana Gioia. "This study shows the startling declines, in how much and how well Americans read, that are adversely affecting this country's culture, economy, and civic life as well as our children's educational achievement."

... Among the key findings:

Americans are reading less - teens and young adults read less often and for shorter amounts of time compared with other age groups and with Americans of previous years.

Less than one-third of 13-year-olds are daily readers, a 14 percent decline from 20 years earlier. Among 17-year-olds, the percentage of non-readers doubled over a 20-year period, from nine percent in 1984 to 19 percent in 2004.

On average, Americans ages 15 to 24 spend almost two hours a day watching TV, and only seven minutes of their daily leisure time on reading.

Americans are reading less well – reading scores continue to worsen, especially among teenagers and young males. By contrast, the average reading score of 9-year-olds has improved.

Reading scores for 12th-grade readers fell significantly from 1992 to 2005, with the sharpest declines among lower-level readers.

2005 reading scores for male 12th-graders are 13 points lower than for female 12th-graders, and that gender gap has widened since 1992.

Reading scores for American adults of almost all education levels have deteriorated, notably among the best-educated groups. From 1992 to 2003, the percentage of adults with graduate school experience who were rated proficient in prose reading dropped by 10 points, a 20 percent rate of decline.

The declines in reading have civic, social, and economic implications – Advanced readers accrue personal, professional, and social advantages. Deficient readers run higher risks of failure in all three areas.

Nearly two-thirds of employers ranked reading comprehension "very important" for high school graduates. Yet 38 percent consider most high school graduates deficient in this basic skill.

American 15-year-olds ranked fifteenth in average reading scores for 31 industrialized nations, behind Poland, Korea, France, and Canada, among others.

Literary readers are more likely than non-readers to engage in positive civic and individual activities – such as volunteering, attending sports or cultural events, and exercising ...

The show went on to discuss the fact that reading online items is not a substitute. Studies of children who spend equal amounts of time online but one group also reads recreationally finds that the offline readers have drastically better reading comprehension and school performance.

So, for those people that think visiting everyday is all the reading you need, you are kidding yourself and you are limiting yourself. And believe me, there are people that think this and have told me so.

Should we be surprised that no one can find Iraq on a map or string together a proper sentence without saying "ya know"? Not in a society where 30-second YouTube clips and text-messaging are ubiquitous. Getting someone to sit down and do one thing for a half-hour is unheard of. We're becoming an illiterate society that laps up anything that our government or FOX News says because we have no historical perspective to compare it with. Anybody that has ever read 1984 or Brave New World can't help but see the parallels.

I'm not saying that you should abandon TV or shouldn't read online. There are great sources in both areas. Just don't shortchange picking up a good book. It's not supposed to be work - it's supposed to be fun. Pick up something you are interested in. Do yourself a favor and unplug once in awhile.

"Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere." -- Jean Rhys

"You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them." -- Ray Bradbury


CyberKitten said...

There was a news item this evening on that very topic. Apparently the USA has placed 14th in the world in reading skills.

The UK came...... 15th.

[Hangs head in shame].

Laura said...

I can't help thinking back to my childhood. I hated reading. I was (and still am) a relatively slow reader and thus could never keep up with stuff we read in school. I still often have to read something at least twice to remember all the details - if it's really complicated language then I have to read it several times over.

I think now that I actually have time to read at my own pace (school reading excepted) I enjoy it more. I still cannot read for hours on end though - my attention drifts too easily. John, Donna and my sister can all sit and read a whole book in a matter of hours - it still takes me several weeks because I'm slow and I can't read a lot at one time.

So if I'm vegging out for a few hours, I'll often sit in front of the boob tube and knit rather than read. I do think it's an environmental issue. I was never around people who read much. My parents didn't read much. My sister on the other hand, spent a lot of time with our grandmother who did read all the time.

I do look back and wish I had been a more avid reader back in the day - I missed out on a lot of good books that I'm catching up with now.

dbackdad said...

CK - A somewhat dubious partnership we have there. [sigh]

Laura - Being in academics, I'm sure you read way more than I do. I wouldn't blame you for not wanting to immediately come home and pick up a book.

I'm a fairly slow reader also. My wife will go through a book every day or so. I'll start a few books at the same time and then take a month to finish them. When I'm trying to finish a book for before the movie comes out (Harry Potter, for ex.), I'll concentrate and read fairly fast. I just bought His Dark Materials and am going to try and, at least, finish The Golden Compass prior to seeing the movie.

CyberKitten said...

I didn't *really* start reading until I was about 14 when a friend of my brother introduced me to SF. After that I was regularly reading 2-3 books every week for years on end.

Now I tend to finish a book most weeks (though not lately as you might guess).

I too prefer reading for pleasure rather than because I *have* too - which is why I never studied English Lit.