Note: This story was named a National Winner in the Feature category of the 2007 American Society of Newspaper Editors, Quill and Scroll International Writing & Photo Contest.
Published December 22, 2006
The enormous impact of reading on success
by Suzanne Kreps
Junior Peter Winter whistled, momentarily perplexed.
Freshman Tommy Boyd laughed and had to think for a moment.
“Nothing,” said sophomore Sachi Williamson and sighed.
“For fun? I don’t remember,” hesitated senior Maddie Kamp.
Senior Jack Jakubas exclaimed after a pause, “I can’t remember the name of it!”
“That’s a really good question,” said junior Fallon Boyle pensively.
The question was: What’s the last book you read on your own, for fun? Minnehaha students are not alone in their trouble coming up with answers.
Reading used to be a frequent pastime in America, but it has become a less popular leisure activity, particularly as television and other technologies become increasingly common. Research from the last few years shows that Americans, notably adolescents, have grown less likely to read beyond what is necessary for school or work; those who do not do so are also often much less proficient readers. This has serious consequences for students. Not spending time reading and not being a skilled reader gravely affects school performance and readiness for college and careers.
Among adults, there has been significant decline in all book reading in the last twenty years. “Reading at Risk,” a survey by the National Endowment for the Arts, found in 2004 that only 56.6 percent of the US population ages 18 and over
read any book in the previous 12-month period—a 7 percent rate of decline from 1994. Only 46.7 percent read literature (defined as novels, short stories, poems, and plays) showing a 14 percent rate of decline from the ’94 level of 54 percent.
“The concerned citizen in search of good news about American literary culture will study the pages of this report in vain,” wrote NEA chairman Dana Gioia in the preface to the survey report. “As more Americans lose [the capability of advanced literacy,] our nation becomes less informed, active and independent-minded. These are not qualities that a free, innovative or productive society can afford to lose.”
The changes in the numbers of teenagers who read for fun have been even more drastic. Only 30 percent of 13-year-olds reported “reading for fun almost every day” in 2004, the National Assessment of Education Progress studies showed. In 1984, 35% had answered yes to that question. For 17- year-olds, the change was a tremendous nine percentage points—22% in ’04 versus 31% in ’84.
But some might protest that reading in class is enough, and that independent reading doesn’t have any significant effect.
Those protesters should be referred to the NAEP study from 2004. 13- and 17-year-olds who said they read for fun almost every day scored 35 and 37 points better on reading tests than those who said never or hardly ever.
“The amount of free reading done outside of school has consistently been found to relate to achievement in vocabulary, reading
comprehension, verbal fluency, and general information,” wrote Bernice E. Cullinan in an article in School Library Media Research, a research journal of a division of the American Library Association. “Students’ reading achievement correlates with success in school and the amount of independent reading they do.”
Minnehaha English teacher David Lindmark agrees.
“People who are superior readers and better students are reading outside of class,” said Lindmark. He emphasized that reading outside of class can boost students’ comprehension abilities and widen vocabulary.
Independent reading, said Lindmark, helps students gain pleasure in reading as well.
“Try to find enjoyment in things that are assigned in class, too,” he added. “There’s always been those who love to read and those who don’t,” he said, but “there’s probably less reading” these days than there was in the early years of his teaching, both for in-class assignments and outside of class.
“I have no doubt that the more reading they do on their own, the better readers students will be for class assignments,” said Lindmark’s Minnehaha colleague Janet Johnson in an interview.
Johnson, like Lindmark, said that students who love to read always will, despite the ways society distracts them, but students who are “on the fringe”—“those students may be reading more online kinds of things and doing less reading of hard-print magazines and things,” she said.
Minnehaha’s English reading curricula are excellent, according to Johnson. It is important to her that the reading materials “do not come from a narrow swath” of genres and themes.
“We want our students to be able to be critical readers and to know how to handle even material that is controversial,” she said.
Many Minnehaha students also think reading is important.
“Yes!” said junior Sarah Beth Ryther emphatically, about whether she thought reading outside of school was important to success in high
school, college and beyond, “because I think it’s important to be culturally aware. I think a lot of teenagers today aren’t aware of what’s going on in our world.”
“I think it’s a good activity to enrich your mind,” said senior Ben Jacobi, although he added that he has trouble finding the time to read for fun.
Freshman Kellon Crawford agreed; reading is particularly helpful to improve vocabulary, he said.
Reading matters beyond high school as well. 13% of college freshman need remedial instruction in reading, a survey by the Postsecondary Education Quick Information System reported in 1996—and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education reported in 1998 that only 43% of students who enroll in remedial classes complete their bachelor’s degree.
As for careers, the American Diploma Project reported that over 60% of employers said high school graduates’ skills in math, reading, grammar, and writing were only “fair” or “poor.” That is not acceptable for most well-paying jobs, the ADP pointed out. According to the National Adult Literacy Survey of 1992, almost 50% of American adults score in the lowest two levels of literacy skills, and most of them said they could read and write English “well” or “very well.” The NALS also reported that 70% of adults at the very lowest literacy level are either unemployed or work only part-time
Many students know that they should read outside of class, but it is difficult for them to motivate themselves to do it. English teacher Lindmark said that to grow to enjoy reading, students should find an author that appeals to them and read those books, and talk to other people about what they’re reading. He also suggested that students complete their reading for class assignments.
“It’s simple—read more!” Johnson said. That can include material like magazines as well, she added.
Students want to be successful. Now having an answer to the question posed to Winter, Boyd, Williamson, Kamp, Jakubas and Boyle could be a simple step toward getting there.