Reading rates take a dive
Reading for pleasure is becoming significantly less common among high school students, negatively impacting their development.
March 29, 2019
Eyelids droop as the final sentences of a story drift across a child’s bedroom. The lilting voice of a parent slowly lulls a child to sleep and to the dreams that await them. Dreams of clever foxes and crafty rabbits, of wicked witches and deadly dragons. Many people remember their parents reading to them before bed time. For some, the love of reading originates in these moments and continues for a lifetime. But for the majority, reading for pleasure does not exist outside of a childhood memory.
Who is reading?
In a recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center, only 19 percent of Americans are reading for pleasure. Teenagers read for pleasure the least—only 9.4 percent reading on a given day. These staggering low numbers have been on a steep drop since the late 20th century, but recently reached an all time low last year.
This large decline correlates to a fall in the daily reading average for most teenagers. Although the recommended daily reading time is 30 minutes, on a normal day, a teenager will only read for 17 minutes.
Why aren’t teenagers reading?
Reading for pleasure is a form of entertainment—a method to relax and transport oneself. But in the digital generation, teenagers experience no shortage of entertainment options. Since most American teenagers have access to a smartphone, there are endless opportunities for instant gratification only a touch of a home button away. According to a Pew Research Center study, the average teenager spends nine hours a day online, mostly through their smart device. Popular social networking apps, online games and video services are able to provide captivating content easier and faster than a book.
“[Students before] didn’t resist reading as much as many of them do now. Obviously, it’s the phone,” English teacher Joy Korones said. “I have taught long enough that I can see long trends over time—and the ability of the phone in their pocket to entertain and distract has killed many students’ interest in prolonged, deep reading.”
According to a survey of 250 Madison students, 52.8 percent prefer watching television and movies over reading. Services like Netflix and Hulu allow teenagers to watch videos at any time of the day, requiring less physical and mental effort.
However, the largest factor affecting teenage reading rates nationally and at Madison is students’ shortage of time due to academic pressure. As college competitiveness increases across the nation, the stress to participate in a variety of extracurriculars, excel in sports, obtain a job or internship and complete hours of daily homework assignments also increases. As a result, students are only able to devote a small amount of time to reading—a hobby viewed as less beneficial than studying for the next day’s test.
“School has really diminished my time to read for fun. During the summer I can get through more books than I can count, but once the school year starts, I struggle to finish any books,” Elliott Bloom (’20) said. “I participate in two sports on top of school, so between homework and sports I really don’t have much free time to read. When I occasionally have the time, I’m usually drained to read and instead watch TV.”
The importance of reading for pleasure
It is often easy to distinguish readers from non-readers based on their writing skills. Reading for enjoyment greatly improves a person’s writing abilities as it helps build a greater vocabulary, familiarizes a person with the written word and helps develop critical thinking skills.
“Reading is good for our brains. It always surprises me when students will put two hours into a workout or practice but not realize that the brain must be exercised as well,” Korones said. “In fact, more so, because the reading you do now is undoubtedly going to benefit you more than any session on the field or at the gym.”
In English classes, specifically AP Language and Composition, students who do not read for pleasure oftentimes lack the writing skills necessary to do well in the course. Because their exposure to reading outside of the classroom is limited, students who do not read also find themselves unable to draw upon a diverse literary background for supporting evidence in essays and on AP exams.
“Since the AP Lang persuasive essays are about such a wide range of topics, I can usually tie information from the books I’ve read into the essays,” Bloom said. “My teacher always says to use as much evidence as possible, so reading really helps me succeed in AP Lang.”
Reading is also a way to connect with others. While reading is often described as a way to escape reality, it can also bring a person closer to the truth of the human experience. From books to even news articles, a person can develop better empathy for their peers.
“Reading makes people more curious, interesting and empathetic to others,” Korones said. “Reading slows us down, and helps us explore lots of different lives and different perspectives. I know that I won’t be able to travel everywhere I wish in my lifetime, or meet as many people as I wish I could—but reading lets me get a lot more places and understand many more points of view than any other activity I know.”
Infrequent reading habits can lead to shorter attention spans as well. Reading for enjoyment increases reading stamina, which allows a person to read lengthy passages, like a chapter in an AP Biology textbook, for longer amounts of time.
“If you’re not reading outside of school when you do get reading in school, you’re just not used to it,” Liebman said. “And books you read for school can be more challenging than books you read on your own, so it makes it doubly hard if you’re not used to reading a certain amount of time.”
Although students are not frequently reading books outside of school for pleasure, this does not mean they’re not reading at all. Due to the English curriculum at Madison, almost all English classes require students to read at least one book as an assignment. This exposes students to classical literature as well as a variety of other texts.
However, this does not always have a positive impact on students’ enjoyment of reading.
According to to a survey of 250 Madison students, 67.6 percent do not enjoy required reading assignments while 51.2 percent believe assigned books deter them from reading.
“I used to read for fun all the time,” Christina Pantzer (’19) said. “But having so many book-related assignments from school has taken the pleasure out of reading for me.”
In addition to many mandatory analytical essays and difficult tests, required readings often imply reading a book is an activity that can only be done as an assignment rather than for pleasure. The books assigned to students mainly consist of classical texts, which are not as engaging as modern books that target a teenage audience.
“I think you have students who don’t read for fun, and when they get required reading, they will do it reluctantly or not at all because the reading is harder for them,” English Department Chair Katie Newman said. “If you read a lot for enjoyment, particularly across genres, the jump to a challenging text isn’t as significant.”
Despite the deterrents of required readings, assigned books provide a fundamental knowledge necessary for education.
“Students need to see that there are books we read for instruction (canonized works of excellence) and there are universal truths to be learned from them.” Korones said. “It’s also part of cultural literacy; I can’t imagine what it’s like to miss every single allusion to the famous books of the world, as so many of our students will. Not everything is fun and easy and immediately relevant—not all reading should be, either.”
How to improve declining reading rate
Parents greatly influence the reading habits of their children, according to a study conducted by the National Literacy Trust. If parents promote reading as a form of entertainment equal to that of watching television or a movie, their children are more likely to become habitual readers.
In addition to parents, schools and teachers must emphasize the importance of reading in and out of the classroom as a way to improve the declining reading rate. Including independent reading time during school has been proven to encourage reading among students, as stated in the study conducted by the National Trust Literacy.
At Madison specifically, Librarians Alice Pleasants and Liebman hold a Book Madness every year in March as a way to promote newly released titles and encourage the camaraderie that can accompany reading for pleasure.
Book Madness begins in February and ends in late May, with students signing up to read two books out of the 64 paired together by the librarians. Students have three weeks to read their selected books before deciding which one moves on to the next round. As Book Madness continues, the brackets become smaller, until two books are left in the final round. For this round, as many students as possible read the final two books and vote on their favorite.
The Madison library also encourages students to read with Madison Reader’s Choice, a selection of past Book Madness winners and books that are “guaranteed hits,” according to Liebman.
While encouraging a love of reading among students may help to combat the declining reading rate among teens, students must also come to their own realization that reading less frequently or not reading at all will ultimately harm their chances at success in the present and in the future.
“It is never too late to find your gateway book,” Newman said. “My hope is that students who aren’t readers at this point in their lives will come back to it later when they find that book that captures them. You just need one to open the door to the others.”
Many people remember the moments when their parents read to them before bed time and recall the magic of the stories they were told. But as the reading rate among teenagers continues to deteriorate, a future generation may only remember their parents whispering “goodnight” as they are left with the magical glow of a cell phone screen.