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TO READ OR NOT TO READ: Report Finds Reading Declines Have Civic, Social, and Economic Implications for the Nation

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"As Americans, especially younger Americans, read less, they read less well," writes Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Although there has been measurable improvement in recent years in reading ability at the elementary school level, progress appears to stall as children enter their teenage years. So says To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Significance, a recent report from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The report builds on the NEA’s 2004 Reading at Risk report that focused mainly on literary reading trends among adults aged eighteen and older. The new report examines reading trends for students and adults alike, as well as readers at various education levels. It finds a gradual worsening of reading skills among older teens and declining reading proficiency, both of which, it says, have serious civic, cultural, and economic implications.

“As Americans, especially younger Americans, read less, they read less well,” writes Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, in the preface to the report. “Because they read less well, they have lower levels of academic achievement. (The shameful fact that nearly one third of American teenagers drop out of school is deeply connected to declining literacy and reading comprehension.) With lower levels of reading and writing ability, people do less well in the job market. Poor reading skills correlate heavily with lack of employment, lower wages, and fewer opportunities for advancement.”

On the other hand, the report finds that good readers typically have more financially rewarding jobs, with 58 percent of proficient readers earning more than $850 a week, compared to only 23 percent of basic readers and 13 percent of below-basic readers. In addition, literary readers, who the report defines as individuals who have read a novel, short story, poem, or play in the last twelve months, are more than three times as likely as nonreaders to visit museums, attend plays or concerts, or create artworks of their own-information that is probably not surprising. However, the report also finds that literary readers are more likely to play sports, attend sporting events, or do outdoor activities. They also are more than twice as likely as nonreaders to volunteer or do charity work. As Gioia writes, reading “seems to awaken a person’s social and civic sense” and “correlates with almost every measurement of positive personal and social behavior surveyed.”

Sadly, the report notes that frequent readers are on the decline, especially among young Americans. It finds that 48 percent of all Americans aged eighteen to twenty-four read no books for pleasure in 2002, a decline of 7 percent from 1992. The decline in reading is even more prominent among teenagers. According to the report, the percentage of seventeen-year-olds who read nothing for pleasure has doubled, growing from just 9 percent in 1984 to 19 percent in 2004.

The report also finds that the percentage of students who read almost every day for fun declines as they get older. For example, 54 percent of nine-year-olds fell into this category in 2004, compared to 30 percent of thirteen-year-olds, and only 22 percent of seventeen-year-olds. The decline in readers can also be seen at the college level, where the percentage of active readers among college graduates has fallen from 82 percent in 1982 to 67 percent in 2002.

According to the report, Americans’ reading skills worsen as they read less, especially among teenagers and young males. Using data from the 2004 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Trends in Academic Progress, the report’s authors note that the average reading scores for seventeen-year-olds began a slow downward trend in 1992. On the other hand, reading scores for nine-year-olds who, the report points out, show no declines in voluntary reading, are at an all-time high.

Students are also more likely to drop out of high school as their reading skills worsen. According to the report, adults who are deficient readers are more likely to be high school dropouts. Using data from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, the report’s authors note that half of below-basic readers do not complete high school. Basic readers do not fare much better, with one third not completing high school. Conversely, the number of proficient readers who did not graduate from high school was only 1 percent.

Not only are poor readers less likely to graduate from high school, but they are also more likely to be unemployed or in prison. According to the report, 55 percent of below-basic readers are unemployed, compared to only 22 percent of proficient readers. And within the prison population, 56 percent of adult prisoners read at or below the basic level, compared to only 3 percent who read at the proficient level.

To Read or Not To Read is not an elegy for the bygone days of print culture, but instead is a call to action-not only for parents, teachers, librarians, writers, and publishers, but also for politicians, business leaders, economists, and social activists,” Gioia writes. “The general decline in reading is not merely a cultural issue, though it has enormous consequences for literature and the other arts. It is a serious national problem. If, at the current pace, America continues to lose the habit of regular reading, the nation will suffer substantial economic, social, and civic setbacks.”

The complete report is available at http://www.nea.gov/news/news07/TRNR.html.

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