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Americans' Reading, Reading Comprehension Declines

NEA Chief Calls For National Effort

By CAROLE GOLDBERG, Courant Books Editor

November 19, 2007

Read it, and weep.

A survey released today by the National Endowment for the Arts on the reading habits of Americans of all ages confirms and expands conclusions reported by the NEA three years ago about adults: We are reading less, and we are reading less well — and the consequences are troubling.

The new report, titled "To Read or Not To Read," draws information from more than 40 unrelated surveys of the reading patterns of children, teenagers and adults, undertaken by federal agencies, academic institutions, nonprofits and businesses.

"Data from many sources shows an astonishing consistency," said NEA Chairman Dana Gioia, speaking on a conference call last week. The data are "comprehensive, reliable, nationally focused and up-to-date," Gioia said, "and show the enormous impact of reading and its decline now in the United States."

The surveys looked at reading for pleasure of all kinds, including books, newspapers, magazines and websites.

"Is this a cultural apocalypse? No," Gioia said, but noted a paradox — while the number of books published is increasing annually, reading for pleasure is declining.

"Many still read, and read well," he said, "but we are at a delicate point, and the trends are toward the negative. Americans are reading less and, therefore, less well, and so they do less well in school, in the economy and in civic life."

In an effort to encourage reading, the NEA sponsors community programs that focus on classic books such as "To Kill a Mockingbird." This year, libraries, municipalities, arts and cultural organizations, and other groups hosted programs in locations including Hartford, New Haven, Waterbury and Bridgeport.

The NEA recently announced that Hartford Public Library and the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven are among 127 grant recipients for the first half of 2008. Hartford-area participants will read "The Maltese Falcon," and residents of the New Haven and Norwalk area will read "Fahrenheit 451." Bridgeport will host programs on "The Joy Luck Club."

The new report made findings in several areas:

•We are reading less. Americans, especially teenagers and young adults but also college graduates, do little recreational reading. Nearly half of those ages 18 to 24 who were surveyed read no books for pleasure at all. Those ages 15 to 24 who read voluntarily did so for only seven to 10 minutes a day. And among college graduates, reading literature, such as fiction, poetry and plays, dropped by 18 percent from 1982 to 2002.

•We are reading less well. Americans who do read are doing it less proficiently, particularly teenagers and young males, although average reading scores for 9-year-olds recently have risen.

"Elementary schools are doing a good job," Gioia said, "but the gains top out in adolescence."

Among adult men and women, proficiency is stagnant or declining at all educational levels, dropping 20 percent from 1993 to 2003 among those with graduate degrees, for example. Those who read the least also had the lowest writing proficiency scores.

•Poor reading skills limit work and life opportunities. Employers rank reading comprehension and written communication skills highly, and those who read least frequently scored lowest in these areas. Poor readers are the most likely to drop out of high school, and low reading ability is common among those in prison.

•Reading correlates with active cultural and civic life. Literary readers were more than three times as likely to visit museums, attend plays or concerts and create art as nonreaders, and more likely to play sports, attend games or do outdoor activities. They also were more likely to do volunteer or charity work and to vote.

Gioia emphasized that the data showed correlations, not cause and effect.

And the NEA chairman said the report is "something unusual" for a government agency.

"We have no recommendations," he said, "but we hope to create a national discussion. We need a new national consensus."

He said the report shows that America needs the same resolve it showed when the Soviets launched Sputnik 50 years ago. Improvements in science and math teaching were made, he said, "and that investment gave us 50 years of prosperity by realizing the full potential of our citizens to create a productive country."

"To Read or Not To Read" is not an elegy for print culture," Gioia said, "but a call to action, because we are losing valuable human resources."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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