Reading among children is on the decline, with dramatically fewer teens and pre-adolescents reading even weekly, and many never picking up a book or magazine that's not assigned, according to a report released Sunday.
Various studies have looked at reading trends and achievement, but a report by San Francisco-based Common Sense Media examined changes over time that were revealed in seven surveys and tests by public and private groups. The authors compiled those surveys but did not do new research.
Given teens' widespread, daily use of cellphones and social media, the findings may not be surprising. Indeed, the authors noted that the impact of electronic reading such as e-books and of "short-form" reading on social media hasn't yet been examined.
But what is notable is the precipitous decline in reading for fun by children, especially teens. Moreover, reading scores among teens have been stagnant for more than 40 years.
"This is a cause for genuine concern," said James Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense Media. "As a father of four and an educator, I think reading is so essential to kids' academic success and long-term well-being."
Likewise, the report's author, Vicky Rideout, was surprised by the substantial drop in adolescents reading nonassigned books, magazines and newspapers. In 1984, almost one-third of 17-year-olds read for fun almost every day; in 2012, the percentage had dropped to one-fifth. Those who never or hardly ever read for pleasure daily grew from about one-tenth to more than one-quarter.
In fact, 45 percent of 17-year-olds said they read for pleasure only a few times a year. Surveys show that the decline in reading has accelerated in recent years.
"We're going backward," Rideout said, "and we're going backward at a faster and faster rate."
'Shamefully huge' gap
The study also noted the good-bad news from national tests, that reading comprehension among fourth- and eighth-graders has improved since 1992, yet remains dismally low. Just over one-third of fourth- and eighth-graders are proficient in reading. For 17-year-olds, scores have remained stagnant.
In addition, a stark racial achievement gap persists. Among African-Americans, only 18 percent of fourth-graders and 17 percent of eighth-graders are proficient readers. Among Latinos, the respective proficiency numbers are 20 percent and 22 percent.
Those scores compare to 46 percent among white fourth-graders and eighth-graders.
"That gap," Steyer said, "is shamefully huge."
Surveys also showed a marked gender gap. For instance, 30 percent of girls ages 15 to 17 said they read five to seven days a week. But only 18 percent of boys said they read that often.
The findings, Steyer said, highlight the need for a national educational effort aimed at reading, similar to the focus on math-science education. He suggested calling on parents to model behavior -- reading to their children and reading themselves -- and getting schools, business and policy makers to refocus on reading.
Some good news
News from the report is not entirely bad. Among younger children, time spent reading or being read to actually has increased to between a half-hour to an hour a day, according to various surveys. About half of parents with children under 12 read with them every day.
The authors noted the dearth of research on the extent and impact of electronic reading and texting, tweeting and other social media. They suggested further research on how e-books affect how much children read and whether the devices improve literacy, comprehension and retention.
But the findings about the dramatic declines in daily reading, Rideout said, raise a red flag.
"I hope it's not the canary in the coal mine."
Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.
Percent of 17-year-olds who read for fun:
1984 2004 2012
Almost every day 31 22 19
1-2 times/week 33 30 21
1-2 times/month 17 15 16
A few times a year 10 14 18
Never/hardly ever 9 19 27
Source: Common Sense Media/National Center for Education Statistics, 2005 and 2013