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To Read or Not to Read

The National Endowment for the Arts’ (NEA) recently published report “To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence” provides a comprehensive overview of national reading trends. According to NEA Chairman, Dana Gioia, “the story the data tell is simple, consistent, and alarming. Although there has been measurable progress in recent years in reading ability at the elementary school level, all progress appears to halt as children enter their teenage years. There is a general decline in reading among teenage and adult Americans. Most alarming, both reading ability and the habit of regular reading have greatly declined among college graduates.”

The report identifies a troubling decline in voluntary reading, and notes that this decline has social, economic and civic impacts.

Should college and university libraries be doing more to promote voluntary reading? If so, what should we be doing?

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reading more carefully

Of course as an educator and literacy scholar, I too want everyone to read, and to read more proficiently. But before we go worrying about the demise of democracy in America (at least worrying about it coming apart because people aren't choosing to read books in their leisure time), it ought to be worth looking a little more closely at the evidence used in the NEA report.

The key claims rest on the assertion that reading proficiency is declining. But what if that simply is not the case?

When the NEA chose to use data from the Long Term Trends portion of the National Assessments of Education Progress (NAEP) administered by the National Center for Education Statistics, it truncated the data set in order to show the trend it wanted to find. So while it is true that average reading proficiency scores for 17 year olds show a statistically significant decline from their peak of 290 in 1992, it is also true that the average reading proficiency score for 17 year olds in 2004 is exactly the same as the average reading proficiency score for that age group in 1971. In other words, from 1984 through 1992, there was improvement in reading scores, but over the entire period for which we have data, there has been neither overall improvement nor a decline. Kids today are reading at about the same level as kids 35 years ago. So we cannot blame the internet or video games for a phenomenon that simply is an artifact of selective use of data. A graph showing both the NCES data and the NEA data together demonstrates how the selection and arrangement of data create an alarming picture when the real story looks quite different.

Similarly, the NEA claims that adults' reading proficiency has also declined. In this case, the data come from another NCES assessment -- the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), as reported in "Literacy in Everyday Life." The NCES report concludes that "between 1992 and 2003, there were no statistically significant changes in average prose ... literacy for the total population ages 16 and older..." (p. iv). Nevertheless, the NEA takes out of the NCES report some statistical details that turn out to be an anomaly resulting from something called Simpson's Paradox and claims otherwise.

My own research involves experiments with digital reading and writing environments, and I direct the Sociable Literacy Project. So I am not interested in undermining the NEA report because I am hostile to the idea that promoting reading is good policy. Quite the contrary. We don't do ourselves any favors, though, if we allow the NEA to get away with bad science, even in support of a great cause.

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