Is reading — just for the pure, leisurely joy of it -— becoming the pastime of a bygone era? For many a modern adolescent, it is. Today’s teens are about as likely to bury their noses in a book as they are to chat on a corded phone or tell time on an analog clock.
The decline in reading spans the globe. A new report from the Organization for Economic and Co-operative Development reveals reading for enjoyment among 15-year-olds has dropped since 2000 in most of the world’s developed countries. American adolescents find reading especially onerous: The U.S. ranks 57th out of 65 countries in the percentage of 15-year-olds who read daily for fun. Less than 60 percent of American teens (and even fewer boys) read for pleasure every day.
Why should we care? Plotlines and prose provide more than mere entertainment. Reading for enjoyment is linked closely with test performance. Daily readers “score the equivalent of one-and-a-half years of schooling better” on OECD’s reading assessment than non-readers. That’s quite a bump.
Given this link, newly released SAT scores aren’t so surprising. Critical reading scores from 2011 are the lowest ever. It’s true that 2011 test-takers comprised the biggest, most diverse group on record. But shifting demographics can’t account for all of the downturn. The fact that many teens shun reading surely has played a part.
Does frequent reading confer other, non-test-taking, benefits? Indeed it does. Habitual readers understand more of what they read; that, in turn, renders the reading experience all the more rewarding. As Ralph Waldo Emerson observed, “‘Tis the good reader that makes the good book.”
Readers also write better and possess an infinitely richer vocabulary than non-readers.
Why don’t more teenagers while away contented hours (or even minutes) each day with a book? Many do not have the time. Pressed in by an educational culture that equates academic rigor with grinding homework, plenty of teens are falling into bed, exhausted at 11 p.m. or later. Who can luxuriate in an absorbing tale once darkness falls? There are too many problem sets to solve and essays to write.
Hammering superfluous homework is nothing new, but it’s a message that bears repeating. Obviously, when limited to 2 1/2 hours per night in high school (the amount backed by research), homework reinforces learning. But many teens, especially in advanced placement and honors classes, stare down nightly homework totals even a seasoned graduate student might find daunting. The irony is that free time for book reading would actually produce a better student — and a less-stressed child.
Homework isn’t the only thing warring against reading. Digital diversions gobble up enormous chunks of teens’ time. A recent Scholastic study found that as kids grow older, reading time “declines in direct opposition” to time spent online (for fun) or with mobile phones. To modern teens, the immediacy of the digital world is far more compelling than the slowly unraveling story arc of a novel.
To be sure, digital books and e-book readers have opened up unprecedented, highly portable opportunities for literary engagement. But the truth is most kids aren’t using technological advances to indulge a passion for books.
What should we do? Schools clearly have their role, but inculcating a love of reading starts at home. As parents, we must carve out time for teens to read. That means we push back when homework demands engulf our children. We ensure their nimble fingers cradle more than consoles and keyboards. And we expose them, again and again, to the mind-enriching, soul-gratifying world of great books.
(Kristen Blair is a North Carolina Education Alliance Fellow.)