Reading may be on its way out.
That is one conclusion to be drawn from a report by the National Endowment for the Arts issued last week. The report states that Americans are reading less, and their reading proficiency is declining at frightening rates.
"This is really alarming data," NEA Chairman Dana Gioia said. "Luckily, we still have an opportunity to address it, but if we wait 10, 20 years, I think it may be too late."
This report is an expansion of the NEA's 2004 study, "Reading at Risk." That study focused primarily on so-called literary reading -- novels, stories, plays and poems. It concluded that a sharp decline in reading for pleasure had occurred and that young adults, in particular, were less likely to pick up a book in their spare time.
When that report was issued, some critics dismissed its significance, saying that it focused primarily on literature while largely ignoring the amount of informational reading Americans do, such as reading magazines, newspapers or material on the Internet.
This time around, however, the NEA broadened its scope to include data from large-scale studies by governmental and private agencies that comprise a broader definition of reading. The latest study includes analysis of all types of reading, including reading done online.
Sadly, the results are much the same: People aren't reading as much as they used to, especially older teens and young adults.
Ordinarily, warnings about a decline in reading would bring calls for better early education, more involvement and encouragement from parents and a new effort to get young people hooked on reading. But the NEA report indicates that parents, teachers and society in general already are doing a relatively good job of instilling a love of reading in the young.
For example, the percentage of 9-year-olds who say they "read almost every day for fun," according to the NEA report, rose slightly, from 53 percent to 54 percent, between 1984 and 2004. During roughly the same period, average reading scores for 9-year-olds rose sharply.
But the percentage of 17-year-olds reading almost every day for fun dropped from 31 percent in 1984 to 22 percent in 2004, with average reading scores also showing steady declines. The NEA reports that in 2006, 15- to 24-year-olds spent just seven to 10 minutes a day voluntarily reading anything at all. Between 1992 and 2003, the number of college graduates who tested as proficient in reading declined from 40 percent to 31 percent.
The implications truly are scary. Reading skills correlate not only with higher earnings and more job opportunities but also with increased voting, volunteerism, charity work, attendance at cultural events and even exercising and playing sports.
NEA officials also dispute the notion that the study's results simply reflect a move away from reading words on paper to reading electronically. Gioia said that Internet reading "does not seem to nourish the sustained, linear attention" that traditional print media do.
We can only hope he is wrong and that the decline in traditional reading will be counterbalanced by an increase in reading online or elsewhere, that young adults simply have found a different way to assimilate information they need. If not, the result could be a significant cultural decline.
The drop in reading also could result in a gradual economic decline as an increasingly nonreading United States falls behind nations that sustain the culture of reading. That is a phenomenon that might ignite the interest of young adults -- but how will they learn about it if they don't read?
Troubling new report says Americans are reading less and with less proficiency.
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