Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The new Common Sense Media report on reading

(I have been taking a year off from blogging while I think things through on (maybe) a deeper level, but I wanted to record a quick take on a new paper on reading that's been in the news.)

A new report by Common Sense Media reviewing the data on how much kids read has been getting some press recently. In the Times, Frank Bruni used it as the jumping off point for a column celebrating reading. My department chair sent us a link to the report, and asked what we thought. Here are my quick thoughts.

The standard takeaway from the report seems to be that kids are reading less now than they were 20 years ago. My department chair used the phrase "hell in a handbasket," and Bruni calls the change "marked and depressing." I'm not sure it's as bad as all that. But if the data the report discusses is somewhat open to interpretation, it does seem clear that our society can do better at helping our schoolchildren read. Because reading seems clearly to be the most important academic skill, this matters a lot.

The report's first two "key findings" are what have gotten the most attention, and they also seem most important to me. The report's other key findings are either of less general interest (gender gaps, racial/ethnic gaps, impact of e-readers, etc.) or kind of obvious (kids whose parents read aloud to them and have books in the house are better readers). The first two key findings are:

1) all kids, but especially older kids, are reading less for fun than they used to;

2) while reading comprehension scores for elementary-age kids are higher than they used to be, reading comprehension scores for older kids have not improved.

What's interesting about these two findings, if they're accurate, is that there are two apparent contradictions: kids in the younger grades are better at reading than they used to be, but kids in the older grades are not; and the reduction in pleasure reading is not translating to a decrease in reading scores.

Two possible (but I think unlikely) interpretations:

One way to interpret these findings is to think that reading for pleasure doesn't matter much. That's possible, but unlikely, given the high correlation between pleasure reading and reading scores.

Another possibility is that the findings are not accurate, that older kids are reading just about as much as they used to, but that some of their reading is not showing up in the data. As far as I can tell, there is some possibility that some of what teenagers are doing on their screens is not being counted as reading, even though it is practically the same as stuff that in the past, when it wasn't done via a screen, used to be counted as reading. A lot of what my son does on his iPod touch is reading about professional tennis and rock climbing. When I was his age, I spent hours every week reading bicycling magazines. Reading an online article or blog post and reading an article in a print magazine are basically the same activity, but I looked like I was reading, and he looks like he's on facebook.

My take:

While these studies may not be catching all the reading that's really happening, I think they're probably mostly accurate. Older kids probably are reading less. Some of this may be due to the improvement of competing non-reading activities like youtube, instagram and facebook (technologies that can be seen as improved versions of the telephone and the television). But this wouldn't explain why younger kids are getting higher reading scores now, so I think there is something else going on, too.

What I think has happened is that we have put a lot of energy into trying to teach, through direct instruction, the "skills" and "strategies" of reading. There has been a huge push, at all levels, to turn reading instruction into a mechanical process that can be broken down and implemented piece by piece. What there has not been is a huge push to encourage reading as a pleasurable and valuable activity that people might want to engage in on their own, either for entertainment or (like my son's reading about tennis and rock climbing) for information about the world.

The increase in direct instruction in skills and strategies may have boosted reading scores on the NAEP in the elementary school years, but they have not made 17 year olds better readers. We seem to be having short term success, but the short term success is not translating into long term success.  This is a pattern that I noticed last year in data about the reading scores of students in Waldorf schools. Waldorf education doesn't teach reading at all until kids are 7 or 8. As you might expect, Waldorf students score poorly on reading tests in early elementary school. By eighth grade, however, they have caught up. By the end of high school, they may be pulling ahead.

It also strikes me that the direct instruction that may produce higher scores in elementary school could be having a counterproductive effect in the long term. It's very possible that the way reading is now taught discourages reading for pleasure.

So if it were up to me, I would try to spend more energy on encouraging pleasure reading, especially at the high school level, when pleasure reading drops off precipitously.

The report: https://www.commonsensemedia.org/file/csm-childrenteensandreading-2014pdf-0/download

The Times column: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/13/opinion/bruni-read-kids-read.html