Literacy: America is Less Literate Than 20 Years Ago

The National Endowment for the Arts conducted a study of reading habits. Among the findings are that Americans are reading less. Surprised?

I’m not. Look at this:

Less than one-third of 13-year-olds are daily readers, a 14 percent decline from 20 years earlier. Among 17-year-olds, the percentage of non-readers doubled over a 20-year period, from nine percent in 1984 to 19 percent in 2004.

In 1984 I was graduating from high school. I was a minority at that time among my class mates and was a voracious reader. While many of my peers may have been readers in the broad sense, I was one of a very few who took to literary reading. Popular Mechanics may be considered reading material, but it doesn’t compare to Great Expectations. Call me elitist but there are different levels of reading. Nevertheless, consider this:

On average, Americans ages 15 to 24 spend almost two hours a day watching TV, and only seven minutes of their daily leisure time on reading.

Two hours a day watching TV? How many hours are they online, playing games, chatting with their friends, or pretending in Second Life? They may not be reading as much as they were 20 years ago, but it seems they’re spending less time watching TV as well. If they are online then they could still be reading. I’d be curious as to how much time today’s teens spend online and how much of that time is actually reading content as opposed to watching YouTube videos.

Another interesting part of this study:

Reading scores for American adults of almost all education levels have deteriorated, notably among the best-educated groups. From 1992 to 2003, the percentage of adults with graduate school experience who were rated proficient in prose reading dropped by 10 points, a 20 percent rate of decline.

I’m still not surprised. Take mediocre high school students with little ambition and put them through college at taxpayer expense and you’ll likely get less proficient reading levels. We’ve coddled ourselves into illiteracy and we don’t need the NEA to tell us that. Reading comprehension just isn’t considered a necessary skill any more.

More striking stats:

  • Nearly two-thirds of employers ranked reading comprehension “very important” for high school graduates. Yet 38 percent consider most high school graduates deficient in this basic skill.
  • American 15-year-olds ranked fifteenth in average reading scores for 31 industrialized nations, behind Poland, Korea, France, and Canada, among others.
  • Literary readers are more likely than non-readers to engage in positive civic and individual activities – such as volunteering, attending sports or cultural events, and exercising.

It’s interesting that employers consider reading comprehension an important skill but note that the applicants they receive don’t possess the skill in large numbers. No one is particularly surprised that our high schoolers are behind the rest of the world in reading literacy. Look at our leadership. We have a proud C student as president and commander-in-chief. But look at that last bullet point.

Exercising? Is reading literacy really tied to fitness? Is America fat because it can’t read? That’s rather startling considering that reading itself is a rather sedentary activity. People generally don’t read while kickboxing or practicing aerobics. But it does make sense. People who are literate take the time to live healthy lifestyles and that means focusing on healthy eating, healthy exercise, healthy civic activities, and healthy encounters with others. I, for one, am not surprised by these findings, but I am distraught at the state of my nation’s intellectual dysfunction. It means they are likely not reading poetry.

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