Book News: NEA report on nation's literacy shows decline in young readers


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There's a mass of tables and charts to wade through in the latest pulse-taking by the National Endowment for the Arts on the nation's literacy -- 93 to be precise -- and it all points downhill.

Titled "To Read or Not to Read," the report targets teen and young adults. It concludes not only that declines in reading by those groups have translated into a drop in education test scores over 10 years, but also that the drop poses serious threats to the nation's civic and cultural health.

"This study shows the startling declines, in how much and how well Americans read, that are adversely affecting this country's culture, economy and civic life as well as our children's educational achievement" was how NEA chairman Dana Gioia summed it up in press material accompanying the study.

Drawing on a variety of findings, primarily the National Center for Education Statistics, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education, the NEA reiterated what has been extensively reported for years about reading activity among teens -- voluntary reading drops as children enter adolescence.

Scores for reading proficiency have fallen among high school seniors between 1992-2005, reports the Department of Education, a finding repeated in the NEA report. The drop is higher among boys than girls.

The cultural agency doesn't stop at cataloging research on reading activity but attempts to link those findings to other studies to sound warnings about American society as whole.

Cited are a range of reports drawing parallels between voluntary reading and academic and job performance, all leading to the NEA's conclusions that:

• "Reading for pleasure correlates strongly with academic achievement."

• "Good readers generally have more financially rewarding jobs."

• "Good readers play a crucial role in enriching our cultural and civic life."

• "Good readers make good citizens."

Critics of Gioia's report noted that the definition of reading was limited to print, mostly books, and for pleasure, and largely ignored the increasing use of Internet sites as sources of information and entertainment.

There was no attempt to gauge the amount of time young people spend reading online because "there's a lack of specific data" on it, the NEA admitted.

Patricia Schroeder, president of the Association of American Publishers, said yesterday that sales of books aimed at teen readers have been "experiencing double-digit growth in recent years," reflecting an increasing popularity of books among teen readers not noted by the NEA.

Schroeder cited two federal reading programs for preschoolers -- Reading First and Early Reading First -- that have inspired "demonstrable enthusiasm for reading" but criticized the Bush administration, which appointed Gioia to the NEA, of planning to cut funding for those programs.

In the Post-Gazette's series "Back to School: The First 'R' " that appeared in August, educators who had long been aware of this decline described new efforts in schools and libraries here to reach young readers and offered suggestions for parents to work on the problem.

The full "To Read or Not to Read" summary can be found at the NEA Web site, www.nea.gov.


Post-Gazette book editor Bob Hoover can be reached at bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.


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