By ERIN ALLEN
“Read in order to live,” French novelist Gustave Flaubert once said. But today’s teenagers and young adults aren’t reading to live or living to read. A 2007 research report from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) about the state of reading in the United States reached three conclusions: Americans spend less time reading; reading comprehension skills are eroding; and these declines have serious civic, social, cultural and economic implications.
Sunil Iyengar, director of the NEA Office of Research and Analysis that produced “To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence,” discussed the report’s finding and potential consequences in a program sponsored by the Center for the Book on May 8.
“First of all, you should be proud you are here,” said Iyengar, addressing the audience gathered at the Library of Congress on May 8. “This type of critical mass is hard to accomplish when discussing topics about reading, books and literature. There has been a deterioration in civic involvement in concern about reading.”
In 2004, the NEA published “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America.” That study showed that Americans in almost every demographic group were reading fiction, poetry and drama—and books in general—at significantly lower rates than 10 or 20 years earlier, with declines steepest among young adults. This newest 2007 study attests to the diminished role of voluntary reading in American life.
Young Adults Read Less
According to the 2007 report, young adults read fewer books in general. Nearly half of all Americans ages 18 to 24 read no books for pleasure. And reading is declining as an activity among teenagers. Less than one-third of 13-year-olds are daily readers.
“Nine-year-olds had the highest percentage” of reading for fun, said Iyengar. But teens and young adults read from seven to 10 minutes a day, which is about 60 percent less time than the average American spends reading.
“Television and online activities seem to take up the most time,” said Iyengar. “Fifteen- to 24-year-olds actually have the most leisure time of all age groups,” but they spend up to two-and-a-half hours per day watching TV, he said.
Even when reading does occur, it not only competes with the television but also other media, such as video games, instant messaging and e-mailing.
The 2007 survey concluded that the number of books in a home is a significant predictor of academic achievement, and today, Americans spend less on books than in the past two decades.
“In our survey, we also controlled for parental education, which was the closest we could come to income,” said Iyengar. It was found that poorer households with books tested higher than wealthy households with few to no books.
Evidence suggests that modeling behavior by “reading in front of your kids and reading with your kids” instills respect for books, Iyengar said. “However studies show that fewer than 5 percent of kids are read to.”
The 2007 survey also found that college attendance no longer guarantees active reading habits. “The number of nonreaders jumped from 21 percent to 39 percent as high school seniors became college freshmen,” said Iyengar. “As seniors became college grads, the number of nonreaders increased to well over 50 percent.”
The 2007 survey states that as Americans read less, their reading skills worsen, especially among teenagers and young males. Seventeen-year-olds, in particular, have failed to sustain improvements in reading scores for more than 30 years. By contrast, the average reading score of 9-year-olds has improved.
“Reading proficiency rates are stagnant or declining in adults of both genders and all education levels,” said Iyengar. “This includes degree holders.”
The survey shows that reading for pleasure strongly correlates with academic achievement. The average reading score for high school seniors who read for pleasure almost every day was 302. Those who hardly ever read scored an average of 274. Frequent readers also score better on writing tests than nonreaders or infrequent readers.
Readers Earn, Vote More
“Employers now rank reading and writing as the top deficiencies in new hires,” said Iyengar.
According to the report, remedial writing courses are estimated to cost more than $3.1 billion for large corporate employers and $221 million for state employers.
For those who read well, more than 60 percent have jobs in management, or in the business, financial or professional sectors.
“This segment is more likely to earn $850 or more dollars a week,” said Iyengar. “By contrast, less advanced readers report fewer opportunities for career growth and are more likely to be out of the workforce.”
In addition, nonreaders or deficient readers are less engaged in cultural and civic life.
“Forty-three percent of good readers volunteer, versus 16 percent of nonreaders,” said Iyengar. “This group is also more likely to exercise, visit museums, play sports or do outdoor activities.”
“Good readers also vote at higher rates,” he added. “In the 2000 election, 84 percent voted versus 53 percent of below-basic readers.”
Iyengar offered some words of advice as he concluded his presentation, saying that those who do read need to widen the circle. He mentioned a positive outcome that resulted from “The Big Read” program, which is based on the one-book, one-community model. “We’ve had good feedback on communities coming together to talk about books and reading.”
“My optimism is at least we have data that shows how central reading is to positive outcomes,” he concluded.
Erin Allen is a writer-editor in the Library’s Public Affairs Office.