Reading for Fun

Jesse Wilcox Smith, "Books in Winter"

Jesse Wilcox Smith, “Books in Winter”

Whatever Happened to Reading For Fun?

In a 2004 study “Reading at Risk,” the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) noted an alarming Adownwards trend in book consumption by Americans@ and concluded, AOur worst fears about American reading have been confirmed.@ Even so, the news was even worse in their 2007 study . . .


In a 2004 study Reading at Risk, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) noted an alarming Adownwards trend in book consumption by Americans@ and concluded, AOur worst fears about American reading have been confirmed.@ Even so, the news was even worse in their 2007 study To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence. Drawing on two dozen data sources, NEA concludes that Areading for fun@–that is, any kind of Avoluntary reading@ or Areading for pleasure@–is declining at a remarkable rate. You might believe that the Harry Potter craze and Oprah Winfrey=s book endorsements offer reassuring news to the contrary, but the truth is that these are only isolated phenomena within the larger and more depressing picture. For example:

  • Reading for fun is popular in elementary school but begins to drop off in middle school and fall even more in high school. This continues through college and into adult life.
  • When it comes to pleasure reading, less than one third of thirteen-year-olds are daily readers. The situation is worse for males than it is for females.
  • Among first-year university students, 65% spend an hour or less each week reading for fun.

Wider Implications: Reading Proficiency. This decline in pleasure reading has numerous and significant consequences. To mention one: those who read less, don=t read as well and have lower reading proficiency scores. That may not be surprising, but NEA=s statistics also show that those who don=t read for fun do poorly in every academic subject. How serious are the effects of this drop in pleasure reading? By conventional standards, less than one third of all high school seniors can now read proficiently.

Economic Correlations. Besides lack of success in school, those with lower reading skills do not prosper in the work world. A majority of employers, according to NEA, now rank reading skills among the top deficiencies of new hires; indeed, one in five U.S. workers presently reads at a lower skill level than their job requires. Summarizing, NEA observes: APoor reading skills correlate heavily with lack of employment, lower wages, and fewer opportunities for advancement.@

Civic and Cultural Correlations. But look at the positives associated with reading for fun. While regular reading not only boosts a person=s chances for academic and economic success, it also correlates with many other measures of personal and social well being. Studies indicate:

  • Compared to non-readers, regular readers are more likely to be active in civic and cultural life, most notably in volunteerism and voting.
  • Readers attend more concert and theater performances than do non-readers.
  • Readers exercise more and are more likely than non-readers to play sports, attend sporting events, and do outdoor activities.
  • Compared to the non-reader, if you are a proficient reader, you are more likely to have voted in the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004.

So What Accounts for this Slump in Reading for Fun? Let=s begin with the obvious: 1) The average American (from young children to adults) watches television from 2 to 2 2 hours per day; like the digital diversions provided by the Internet, television competes with reading for precious leisure time. In a more general way: 2) American culture does not value reading, literature, and authors in the ways other cultures do; in Japan, for example, bookstores are numerous and thronged with jostling patrons, while European print media treat leading writers the way movie stars are treated in U.S. But another explanation for this decline lies elsewhere: 3) As the 2004 NEA report noted, these depressing statistics call into question the “teaching and encouragement of reading in schools.@

When Reading Skills Replaces Reading for Fun. Nowadays in schools, a concern with literature is disappearing and being displaced by an almost exclusive attention to literacy (Ameasurable@ literacy). Instead of meaningful encounters with To Kill a Mockingbird or Charlotte=s Web, literature is being used more and more as a tool to teach reading skills–albeit, an important skill not to be overlooked–rather than as a subject itself. The result of this trend is that students= encounters with stories are limited to identifying main ideas, memorizing facts, and increasing their vocabulary. If these are the main reasons people read, youngsters must be deeply puzzled to see adults entering bookstores voluntarily.

Problems in the Ways Teachers Are Prepared. A related cause for this slump in reading for fun is the shift in teacher preparation programs away from content-based courses and towards classes that emphasize pedagogy or Amethods.@ To be sure, future teachers need training in both areas; but when the situation is framed as an either/or choice, teachers are trained to use stories without needing to understand (or even read) them. Commenting on the situation, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities observed: AThe majority of university teacher-preparation curricula, with notable but isolated exceptions, require few courses in literature; consequently, most elementary teachers, nationwide, do not have the skills and confidence to teach children=s stories as literature.@ In their own position paper, the National Council of the Teachers of English detected Aa disturbing trend: the elimination of separate courses of study for children=s and/or adolescent literature in some teacher education programs.@

What Gets Lost. When I was young, Reading and Literature were separate subjects. In elementary school, we took up, separately, ADick and Jane@ and APeter Rabbit@; there was no time-saving effort to make one book do the work of the other. In junior high and high school, we grew our vocabularies by using publishers= standardized programs and reading modules–and we enjoyed stories by Hilary Belloc, Rudyard Kipling, and Jack London. In Reading Class, we understood, we were acquiring skills. In Literature Class, we were having fun. And having learned that reading could be fun, you will not be surprised to learn that there were times when we rushed home to read more of, say, Treasure Island–even at night, with a flashlight, under the covers–or to swap various installments of the Hardy Boy series with friends. (And let me add, in terms of gender equity, that at the same time, my sisters and their friends were keen on Nancy Drew and the Little House books.) It=s sad to think that now only the rare child happens upon this pleasure outside of school.

What We Can Do? As lone individuals, we cannot reverse this trend towards non-reading, nor refashion American culture (to make it more bookish in the manner of Japan or Europe), nor remake our educational system to remedy its shortcomings. What can be done, then? Of course, to begin with, adults might actually pay attention to the way their offspring spend time in front of the tv rather than doing enlivening things; still, to know that reading can be an enlivening alternative, a youngster needs to be introduced to the idea of Areading for fun.@

As I have suggested, except in the rare classroom or with the rare teacher, we can no longer count on schools to convey the idea that reading stories can be fun. So, instead, we need to follow Mark Twain=s advice: AI have never let my schooling get in the way of my education.@ If we wish to raise a generation of readers (the kind that will pour over books, even at night and under the blankets), then it behooves adults to become subversive; if our educational system has given kids a narrowed notion of reading as dreary work in skills acquisition, then grown-ups need to introduce the alternative. It=s really very simple: To encourage reading for fun, go out of your way to provide youngsters with books and (if need be) with flashlights.

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This essay was solicited by (and my contribution to), a San Diego reading advocacy group (June 2010). For a related essay, see my comments on California teacher preparation in the Los Angeles Times (October 27, 2003).


01. April 2015 by Jerry Griswold
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