Report Shows Teens Aren't Reading for Fun

May 14, 2014
Seeta Pai

Do you have students in grades 7-12 who hardly read? You're not alone. Our latest research report, Children, Teens, and Reading, shows that adolescents aren't reading much for fun, and their reading achievement hasn't increased in more than two decades. What's more, the old gaps -- between white, black, and Latino students, and between girls and boys -- are still stubbornly wide.

We reviewed large national surveys and databases and found trends on kids' reading rates, reading scores, reading attitudes, and more. Here's a sampling:

  • Reading rates have dropped precipitously among adolescents
    • 53% of 9-year-olds vs. 17% of 17-year-olds are daily readers
    • The proportion who "never" or "hardly ever" read has tripled since 1984. A third of 13-year-olds and 45% of 17-year-olds say they've read for pleasure one to two times a year, if that
  • Reading achievement among older teens has stagnated
    • Reading scores of fourth- and eighth-graders have improved, but those of 12th-graders haven't changed in 30 years (see recent NAEP announcements on this, too)
  • There's a persistent gap in reading scores between white, black, and Latino kids
    • 18% black and 20% Latino fourth-graders are rated as "proficient" in reading compared to 46% of white kids at that age (this gap has been relatively unchanged over two decades)
  • There's also a gender gap in reading across ages
    • Girls read 10 minutes more per day than boys on average
    • More girls are rated as "proficient" in reading than boys, by 12 percentage points

In a way, the report's findings about teens aren't surprising. Older students have always read less than younger ones, as the multiple demands of growing up take over. For many, there's simply no time to juggle reading for pleasure with schoolwork, afterschool activities, sports, homework, jobs, and socializing. But some students are managing to fit it in. Here's how you can help:

Help parents see they play an important role. Parents of frequent readers vs. infrequent readers were more likely to read themselves, keep books at home, and set aside time for kids to read daily. Send parents to Common Sense Media's Essential Books Guide or recommended lists of books for tweens and teens so they can keep up a steady stream of reading content and provide lots of choices. Also, encourage them to start when kids are really young.

Encourage all kinds of reading. Our study shows that people are undecided about whether ebooks are preferable to print books, but we say take it where you can get it. If books are too much, almost everything else counts as long as it doesn't spiral down into distraction: reading fan fiction from a favorite video game, news on the phone, Wikipedia pages as a reference, blog posts on an interesting topic, or the latest YA hit on an ereader or tablet.

Connect content to students' lives. Reluctant readers may be enticed to read if they relate personally to the content. Seek out reading material with diverse characters and situations to encourage students who may feel as if they don't see themselves reflected in most books.

Try engaging digital tools. Support reluctant readers with LightSail -- it's an ereading platform that taps into your school's digital library. Try ActivelyLearn, Bookshare, NewsELA, or apps and sites featured on our Reading Top Picks list.

In fairness, the studies we reviewed don't cover many other beneficial activities that may be substituting for reading -- creating media, learning through videos, etc. -- and don't cover reading of "short form" text. Educators need to decide how much and what kind of reading is essential, and how digital media might help.

What strategies -- and edtech tools -- do you use to hook kids and teens on reading?