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Are We Reading Less and Reading Worse? Probably Not.

Susan Notes: Whenever a sensational report about the current decline in reading gains blaring headlines, I wait to see what Stephen Krashen will discover in the scare statistics. We can depend on him for an informed reading of all the charts and graphs and in this case for an informed refutation of the spurious conclusions offered in the report.

Stephen Krashen
Professor Emeritus
University of Southern California

A close reading of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) report, To Read or Not to Read, as well as other research on literacy shows that it is not clear at all whether people are reading less or reading worse these days. Here are just a few of the problems with the NEA report.

The NEA quotes a Pew study that reported that only 38% of adults in 2006 said they read a book the previous day. The NEA fails to note that in a Pew study done in 2002, that figure was 34%, and in 1945 it was 21% (Link and Hopf, People and Books, 1945).

The NEA says that teenagers do very little book reading, compared to younger readers, citing the Kaiser M Generation Project. But in a footnote, the NEA notes that if you add magazines and newspapers, there is no difference among the groups. If you add time reading from the internet, available in the Kaiser paper, teenagers report reading about an hour a day, much more than the seven to ten minutes reported in another study (American Time Use Survey) they cited.

The NEA tells us that college students read less than they did in high school. They don’t mention Hendel and Herrald’s study (College Student Journal, 2004). They found that college students read quite a bit and that book reading did not decline between 1971 and 2001.

Finally, all of these surveys are suspect. As Timothy Shanahan has pointed out (comment on Google, November 19), responders sometimes don’t think some kinds of reading are worth reporting. In one poll of teenagers, of 66 respondents who said they did “no reading” 49 checked several categories of leisure reading when asked what they liked to read (Mellon, School Library Journal, 1987).

The NEA also reported that reading scores for 17-year-olds declined from 1984 to 2004. But the 2004 national reading scores for 17-year-olds in 2004 are identical to those made by 17-year-olds in 1971. Whether there has or has not been a decline depends on which years you choose for the comparison. In addition, the “downward trend” since 1984 is quite small, four points on a test in which the highest 10% and lowest 10% differed by nearly 100 points, spread over 20 years. (The NEA did not claim there had been a decline for younger readers.)

The most outrageous misreporting in the NEA report is in table 5F, where we are told that test scores for the lowest scoring 10% of 17-year-olds dropped 14 points between 1992 and 2005. A look at the actual report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (The Nation’s Report Card: 12th Grade Reading and Mathematics, 2005) reveals that most of this happened between 1992 and 1994, a ten-point drop. Similarly, seven points of the nine-point drop between 1992 and 2004 for the lowest 25% occurred between 1992 and 1994. Clearly, something was wrong with one of those tests.

There have been complaints about the decline of literacy in the United States since 1874, when Harvard flunked more than half of its incoming freshman class on a writing test. There was no clear evidence of a decline then, and there isn’t any clear evidence of a decline now.

— Stephen Krashen
The Pulse: Education's Place for Debate


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