Americans give in to distractions and give up on reading

May 13, 2009

Study: Books losing out as distractions multiply
By Patrick McGee
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Saturday, January 5, 2008

Instructors and librarians say they see reading skills slipping.

John Adams wrote some wise, if wearisome, advice: “Let no trifling diversion or amusement or company decoy you from your books, i.e., let no girl, no gun, no cards, no flutes, no violins, no dress, no tobacco, no laziness decoy you from your books.”

Fewer Americans than ever seem to be taking the bookish Founding Father’s advice.

A study released in November by the National Endowment for the Arts found that Americans are reading less, and when they do read, they read with less comprehension.

To be sure, there are a few signs that some Americans are reading. Talk-show host Oprah Winfrey promotes books with great fanfare, children plow through all seven volumes of Harry Potter, and David McCullough’s history books become bestsellers as soon as they’re released.

But the study, To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence, found that technology has created far more distractions since Adams fought off the temptations of cards and flutes. And Americans’ reading skills have plummeted.

All this matters, the study says, because readers vote more often and are more than twice as likely as nonreaders to do volunteer work. Avid readers are also more likely to work in management positions or in professions and will earn more money. And regular reading habits correlate strongly with higher test scores in reading, writing and even math.

No surprise

Area librarians and reading instructors said they’re not surprised by the study’s findings. They can see people’s reading skills slipping. Distractions abound, and when people, especially young people, do read, they’re reading less challenging books.

“The books that are now third-grade reading level would not have been third grade when I was young,” said Leigh Burnham, children’s librarian at the Grapevine Public Library. She said children’s interest in reading and reading ability has dropped so much that a new category of easy-to-read books has taken off.

These books are called “hi-lo” for high interest, low reading level. Examples that Burnham pulled off the shelves included books about volcanoes and earthquakes. Lots of big, colorful pictures. Little text.

“There are whole book companies that just do hi-lo. Everything is going graphic, into comic book form,” she said. “It’s definitely growing over the years to where in what was a couple of pages in a catalog is now the main focus.”

Burnham showed a catalog of books marketed to librarians. Page after page featured books written at a much lower grade level than their intended audience.

Cherie Gibson, a reading instructor at Bedford Junior High School, said getting students to read more can be difficult when their lives are so full of activities and distractions.

“When they come home, and they do have a free moment, they are more likely to play video games with their friends than sit down and read a book by themselves,” she said.

Gibson teaches struggling readers. Her eighth-grade class just finished a novel written on the fifth-grade level.

“Many of my kids will say, ‘This is the first book I have read all the way through,’” she said.

One of her students, 14-year-old Paige de la Garza, said she had read this novel, Among the Hidden, during the summer but did so on the advice of a language therapist her parents hired to improve her reading.

“I’d rather be on MySpace than reading a book,” she said, referring to a Web site popular with teens. “My parents pushed me to read.”

Technology helps

James Branch, the reading instructor at Tarrant County College Northeast Campus in Hurst, said he’s confronted with evidence that people are reading much less every time he starts a remedial reading class.

“I ask them how many people read the newspaper on a daily basis, and no hands go up,” he said. “Right now, it’s just not imperative to them because of technology.”

He said his students get their news from TV instead of reading it.

Despite harbingers of a national reading meltdown, local innovation is helping lift reading skills.

Traci Woods, 40, was in a remedial reading class like Branch’s at TCC’s Southeast Campus in Arlington in 2004. She wanted to transfer to the University of North Texas at Denton, but she had a long way to go — a placement test showed her reading on a fourth-grade level.

Woods is at UNT today after remedial reading classes and lots of extra reading at home.

“The more you do, the better your reading skills improve. If you’re not doing anything, how can you improve?” she said. “You have to know how a book would apply with your reading skills, and that sometimes calls for you to get on a child’s book level.”

Still struggling a bit with reading, Woods found technology at the university that helps rather than distracts.

Several times a week she goes to a reading lab, scans in one of her more difficult books page by page, and selects a computer voice to read the book to her.

A voice reads the material aloud while on screen each sentence is highlighted in yellow and each word in green.

Rebecca Cagle, UNT’s testing and assistive technology coordinator, watched over Woods’ shoulder as she used the software.

“I have so many that want it,” she said. “I just got 10 more [copies of the software] in today. The demand has grown so much.”

While UNT stocks up on reading software, the Dallas nonprofit group Earning by Learning is paying children from poor, urban families to read — $2 per book.

Thelma Morris-Lindsey, founder and director of Earning by Learning, recently went to Webster Elementary School in south Dallas to celebrate third-graders’ success in reading.

The children gasped and cheered when she told them they had read a total of 1,166 books in nine weeks.

One after another, children were called forward to receive their checks, many for as much as $38.

“Those children who didn’t believe will believe today,” Morris-Lindsey said. “They understand now, this is real.”

School Principal Constance Whalon Burton said she’s had the Earning by Learning program at each of the four elementary schools she’s led. She’s convinced that the outside-the-classroom reading encouraged by the program has been a huge factor in the schools’ improvement in reading-test scores.

Burton said she gives students calendars to record their reading at home, aiming to lure them away from television and toward books.

Morris-Lindsey said some donors were skeptical when Earning by Learning began raising funds 12 years ago. She said she had to convince people that incentives are needed now because the benefits of a good education are too many years away for children to grasp.

“It’s not really about the money. … It really is about the concept of incentivizing, of giving the children the opportunity to receive a reward from something good that they do,” she said.


Study findings

The study, titled To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence, found that:

Fewer than a third of 13-year-olds are daily readers.

American families are spending less money on books than at almost any time in the past two decades.

Average reading scores have declined in adults at virtually all education levels.

The study also found that high-tech distractions are drawing people away from books:

Half of American children live in a home with three or more television sets, and more than a third have a TV in their bedroom. Nearly half have a video-game player.

If middle- or high-school students read this article, 1 in 5 will, according to the study, read it while watching TV, playing video games, instant-messaging or surfing the Internet.

Americans ages 15 to 24 spend an average of almost two hours a day watching television and seven minutes a day reading. That’s less than 3 percent of their daily leisure time.