12 June 2008

Is Our Children Reading?

This week saw the release of yet another study of children's reading habits, an annual survey commissioned by Scholastic from the research company Yankelovich. As reported by Publishers Weekly, it found that "pleasure reading in children begins to decline at age eight and continues to do so into the teen years."

That finding isn't new, and many reactions to it aren't new, either. WSB radio in Atlanta began its report, "Kids just aren't reading like they used to. And indications are the trend is getting worse." Actually, the report found that the trend was staying the same. As Jane Henderson at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch book blog wrote, the survey "tells us pretty much what we already knew."

Despite headlines highlighting decline and serious expressions of concern, it's quite easy to find a lot of reassurance in this report. Most kids are all right, even by fuddy-duddy standards:

although children can readily envision a future in which reading and technology are increasingly intertwined, nearly two thirds prefer to read physical books, rather than on a computer screen or digital device. Additionally, a large majority of children recognize the importance of reading for their future goals, with 90% of respondents agreeing that they “need to be a strong reader to get into a good college.” . . .
The results are in line with sociological norms:
Nearly one in four children was found to be a “high frequency” pleasure reader (reading daily), with an additional 53% qualifying as “moderate frequency” readers, reading for pleasure between one and six times per week.
Which leaves about a quarter reading infrequently--a bell curve.

The survey doesn't seem to have collected data on economics, school quality, library access, health, and family stability--probably all important to how well kids learn to read and thus how well prepared they are to take pleasure in reading.

Instead of looking at those things, the survey asked kids and parents about internet use. Are kids spending "too much time" online to be reading (even though being online almost always requires reading)? That's what USA Today comes down on when it begins its article:
Many children in the USA are too busy, too distracted and, in some cases, too tired to read books for fun, a new survey finds, suggesting that schoolwork, homework and diversions such as YouTube and Facebook keep them from regularly enjoying a good book.
(Note the value judgment in the phrase "good book.")

In fact, the survey found that it's not a zero-sum game. “High frequency Internet users are more likely to read books for fun every day,” Scholastic's director of corporate research concluded. Books and online reading are complementary:
Nearly two-thirds of children ages nine to 17 “extended” the reading experience online, including activities such as visiting an author’s Web site, using the Internet to find books by a particular author or visiting a fan site.
Where's the real zero-sum game? The second most common reason children gave for not reading more for pleasure was: “I have too much schoolwork and homework.” In other words, they're reading a lot. (They may even enjoy some of that reading.) But it's reading for school, not for pleasure.

Even beyond schoolwork, what's the biggest influence on kids' reading habits?
parents who read frequently were found to be six times more likely to have children that read often, compared to those who read infrequently. Around one quarter of parents (24%) said they read frequently, up from 21% in the 2006 survey.
Which correlates mighty closely with the "Nearly one in four children" who said they read frequently for pleasure. Furthermore, the drop in kids' pleasure reading at age eight corresponds to when "the frequency with which parents read to or with children drops sharply." (Not that we can be sure that one change causes the other.)

Most telling, "82% of parents responded that they wished their children read more for fun." That's the wish or anxiety that the alarmed media reports are tweaking. But if we assume that 82% of parents includes the 24% who themselves read often for pleasure, that still leaves 58%, or well over half, of all parents wishing that their children would read more avidly than they do themselves.

1 comment:

Tyler Reed said...

J.L., thanks for your astute take on the results of this report. I was also encouraged by many of the findings related to how technology contributes to kids' overall experience with books.

The report tells us again, I think, that too few kids are reading for fun. But it also shows us that we shouldn't fear technology and we should be thinking about how we can use it to make the reading experience even more exciting for kids. After all, as you pointed out, it's the kids who use technology that most that are also the most frequent readers!

Keep up the good work.

Tyler Reed
Corporate Communications, Scholastic