About that NPR piece on kids’ reading habits…


It’s the End of Reading As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

Something new and different for us today: we tried podcasting! And we’re disagreeing with NPR.

I know! But listen: a couple weeks ago NPR ran a story covering this Common Sense Media study ostensibly showing that Kids These Days are reading much much less than they were in times past. Which times, you ask? ME TOO.

Cue my suspicious eyebrows.

Now, Common Sense Media is a great resource for materials to help educators and families discuss issues around digital transitions and technology in schools, but… how is that even possible? And me and my eyebrows also happened to be looking at some very informal data with one of the schools we work with that showed in fact 77% of their middle schoolers read for fun on a regular basis. So what was up with the study?

I’m lucky enough to work in a place where I can ask that question out loud and someone rolls their chair back from their desk, holds up a cautioning finger… and then reads the whole study and answers questions about it.

So here we go: this podcast is a conversation I had with TIIE Graduate Research Fellow Mark Olofson, who read the whole study (it’s helpful to have the study queued up, because Mark talks page numbers, you can follow along if you like) and talks about whether it’s really true that Kids These Days are reading less than they have before.

Transcript below.

In this episode, we’re looking at a recent study that has gotten quite a bit of attention. And that, of course, is the Common Sense Media study, which ostensibly shows that kids aren’t reading as much as in ye olden days. NPR did a piece on this study, The Washington Post did a piece, Forbes Media, Time Magazine, and all of them seem to just want to do some good old fashioned hand-wringing.

(radio broadcast): %45 of 17 year olds today say that they read for pleasure no more than 1-2 times a year, if that often.

(NPR radio announcer): That’s way down from a decade ago, says Jim Steyer, head of Common Sense Media. Among 13-year-olds, a third say they read for pleasure only once or twice a year.

I tend to be naturally suspicious. And in fact, the following week, I saw a much less formal study from one of the schools we work with here in Vermont that showed, in fact, %77 of the middle schoolers they surveyed said that they read for pleasure either a lot or most of the time. Super unscientific, super low end. But it did lead me to want to ask a whole bunch more questions about the data from the Common Sense study.

Now, I’m not much of a data guy, but Tarrant Institute graduate research fellow Mark Olofson is. Mark’s enrolled in UVM’s doctoral program in education, he used to be a science teacher, and is an overall super smart guy. So, he sat down and read the whole Common Sense study, and here’s what he found.

Mark: What was interesting to me was going through some of the methodology pieces, and then actually looking at some of the actual data, then thinking about what we know about schools.

If you go down to the .pdf page 8, this is a meta-study, which means they looked at a bunch of other studies for sort of overall trends. The first study is just NEAT, and that’s just reading proficiency. Doesn’t really tell us anything about how much kids read. The second one is an in-school survey, and then the rest of them are online.

So that to me starts to set off a little bit like: “I’m not so sure…” that you can say everything when it’s an online survey. Because, even though they are using random people generators and probability, people still, to some extent, self-select to fill that out. And also, you’re automatically more likely to connect with people who are online if you’re giving an online survey.

Then we can start to think: if the parents spend more time online, the kids probably spend more time online, and if the kids spend more time online, they might spend less time with an actual print book.

Audrey: And, so, we figured out that they — this study — was qualifying reading as actual print books, as opposed to…?

Mark: Well, it gets into here how the different studies do it differently. They also ask them different questions. The one at the top of the second column, for example, the study asks students to report the amount of time they spent reading the previous day, and then they extrapolate that out to the week.

So, imagine you’re a student and you had soccer practice, and like band practice, and a bunch of things yesterday; you didn’t read that much yesterday, so you put in like 10 minutes, and they’re going to extrapolate out that you only read for 10 minutes a day. Versus on your, maybe on your Monday you read for 2 hours in the afternoon. But you didn’t take the survey on Tuesday, so you don’t report the Monday data. You took the survey later and you report the data about the day previously.

Some of them bring in magazines and newspapers, some of them do not. Some of them are a little bit more specific about print. There’s also this question; it doesn’t look like anybody’s talking about reading that you do online. They do talk about specifically e-readers, so reading an electronic book, but that’s different than “I read 13 blog posts,” and that’s reading for fun, but it wasn’t a newspaper, it wasn’t a magazine, it wasn’t a book on an e-device: it was just content.

So they aren’t really digging into that too much, and actually down at the bottom they get into — around the further questions of research, they touched on that.

Same with the methodology stuff, a little bit longer. Some of them ask kids to report in a diary. Some ask parents to report on kids. Some people did that typical weekend day vs the typical weekday. This study is just trying to put all that data together. Also, they continuously talk about reading for pleasure, and that, to me, is kind of interesting, because if you go down to where they talk about reading proficiencies. I don’t even care about change over time right now. I want to talk about” Reading Achievement” down on page 16.

Audrey: Yup.

Mark: So, reading achievement has increased. There are fewer kids at “below basic,” and more kids at “at or above basic,” and more kids at “at or above proficient” on all of those graphs, right?

Audrey: Yes.

Mark: How are teachers getting students to those levels? They’re making them read more, right? And so-

Audrey: Is there any conceivable way they could have gotten to those levels without…

Mark: Without teachers assigning…

Audrey: an amount of reading?

Mark: There’s no way! I mean, it doesn’t make sense to me. And so, what that means in my mind, probably students have more assigned reading, which is specifically not what this survey is asking about. They’re asking about reading that wasn’t assigned to you.

Well, if you had 2 hours of reading that was assigned to you, you’re, I would guess, less likely to pile more reading on after that. It doesn’t mean that the reading assigned to you is bad. I mean, you know, “Oh, darn, you had to read Huck Finn. It was assigned instead of being a pleasure reading book.” It doesn’t mean that the kids are reading less, it just means that they’re self-selecting. But, then we also have national trends where we talk about how kids have more homework,  and homework’s reading, right? And so, we’re eating up that pleasure time reading with assigned reading. I don’t think that’s bad, especially if the reading that’s being assigned is quality and good stuff.

Audrey: And it’s leading to these increases in achievement.

Mark: Exactly. I mean, I’ve known teachers who’ve taught The Hunger Games. That, 10 years ago, would have been a book that a kid just picks up and reads for pleasure. Now, they wouldn’t check that off as “I read The Hunger Games for pleasure,” they’d say,  “I read The Hunger Games and self report as an assignment.”

Doesn’t mean they don’t like it. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t add to them being readers later in life. It doesn’t mean that they devalue literature. So, I think it’s things like that that the NPR study don’t really dig into. And then, the changes over time were actually not nearly as bad as they wanted to talk about. Some studies, it was worse; some studies, it was better. The achievement gap remains troublesome, but the flip-side — I’m down on page 19 now — so you see there’s still an unconscionable achievement gap here. But, another way to look at those graph is that all groups have improved. All groups have improved, and pretty decently. Yes, the white kids are improving faster, and that’s something that is of some concern and that we would want to think about, but we do see improvement among all groups over the past 20 years. So, I don’t think it’s as–

Audrey: You’re even seeing improvement in the reading scores when you break it down by parent education from 1992-2012. Even though some of the increases are small, they’re still–

Mark: It’s still an improvement, yeah.

Audrey: –there’s no decrease.

Mark: The gender piece, which continues to be a piece that our voice just doesn’t read as much, and that I think is a separate issue; I think there’s cultural things wrapped up in that. The section on electronic book reading I thought was really interesting.

Also, when you’re reading a report like this, I think it’s worth while to just skip to the sections. Like, “Eh, I’m not really that worried about this thing today. I’m going to care more about e-books.” Here, they talk about some of the things that you’re bring up.

For me, especially with the work that we do, this section speaks really loudly because it’s talking about all the distractions that come along with e-readers. Previously, when we first had Kindles and Nooks, that’s what they did: you read books on them; or you could read a newspaper on them; or you could read a magazine on them. And now we’re moving and we have multi-purpose e-readers: we have the iPad. What they are seeing is that students who read in those environments spend less time actually reading. I think they have way more distractions there. I think that a message it brings to us, as we think about the folks we work with, it could say a couple of things. It could say e-readers are actually valuable, although they’ve been pretty quickly *meh* unless you’re on vacation or something. But, for modeling reading on the iPad, I think it’s a teacher and a parent thing. Whereas, a lot of times our iPads, we are doing like 18 different things on it, and we aren’t just sitting down like “I’m going to read on my iPad.” And plus there’s things like notifications, “somebody said something on Facebook” and so you’re distracted and you’re off on it, right? These multi-purpose devices lend themselves to just a ton of distractions, and I think that that’s great, because they are multi-purpose devices, but there needs to be really conscious modeling and instruction around if you’re trying to get your kid to read on a multi-purpose tablet.

Also, a little about the in-print vs electronic. When parents read with their kids, they prefer to do it with a print book. They think that’s important. Some of the reading stuff showed the more print books you have in the house, the more kids are going to read. So, for me, that means they aren’t modeling reading electronic books. Then, when kids are being handed these devices and asked to read on them, the haven’t had that the same way that they’ve had sitting down with mom and reading. So, there’s that lack of modeling.

Audrey: Lack of emotional connection.

Mark: Yeah, absolutely. I think that you can get into, although I still like print books, I think you can just as easily get into a book on a Kindle or even an iPad, but you’re not going to if you haven’t been shown these devices are for that. You should take some time and separate out time specifically with that. Then they’ve got some specific questions about — they need to do more research around e-books. They’ve got like 6 great, heady research questions on page 23. It talks to some of these things — the bells and whistles that come along, with the simple “you touch a word and it’ll read it out loud” to the more interactive pieces. Do those things help, do those things hinder? All those things.

Audrey: They’re also not talking about the quality of the e-books that the kids are reading. There’s a huge difference between an e-book that’s just been slapped into e-pub form from a Microsoft Word text versus, you know, there are some really interesting free textbooks about the American West that, I think, President Obama made available through the White House. The text has been completely justified; there are links and glossaries, but there’s also embedded videos and things like that. I think that just might be much more compelling given the type of content that students are, and kids are, exposed to online all the time.

Mark: Yeah, absolutely. With an example like that, all of those accessory things are built into the content, right? Versus, you might get a children’s book that then has an embedded little game in it, or an embedded little “find the key in this picture” sort of thing, which aren’t as strictly tied into the content; they’re kind of peripheral amusement things.

Going through this report, it’s a lot less dour than is being reported. Things usually are, because researchers are a lot more cautious to make big, sweeping generalizations. It calls for a lot more research, and I think it can speak really to our teachers who are working with tablets, and experimenting with online textbooks, and working with getting readings online. Both the modeling piece: if you want kids to know something, usually you have to teach it. Unless it’s something they’re going to learn from experience, you kind of have to teach it. Teaching, being really setting aside time on the iPad, and I don’t know if that means turning it to Airplane Mode, you know?

Audrey: Right.

Mark: Like, “The next 45 minutes, it’s silent reading time.” And you can do that in class. Even “the next 20 minutes, it’s silent reading time. Everybody needs to be in Airplane Mode, and I need to see pages on your screen.” Asking parents to do that, as well, if they’re trying to get their kids reading at home but also use these awesome devices. “Drop it into Airplane <ode. This is what you’re doing right now. You’re going to read.” I think that, I don’t know, I’m not a child psychologist, but I do think that for my own personal reading I like to be able to focus in and not have a bunch of, like, 18million distractions. And so, it’s showing the kids the way to get there, even though they’re still using this device.

Audrey: I wonder about teachers who are less in favor of reading on devices and are more wedded to print books. I am a much bigger fan of print books than e-books, and I think that if I was in a classroom I would struggle to model reading on an e-reader.

Mark: Definitely, if you have the books there, you can do that. I do think that’s great: print books will never die. Ever. *knock on wood* Because there is this full experiences. Something about it seems more natural.

For those teachers, if they’re really still invested in their print books but they also have these devices, at least taking some time once a week, a couple of times a month, to model what it looks like to read on these devices.

Doesn’t mean it has to be their primary thing.

Doesn’t mean it has to be “Ok, now everybody is going to do it this exact same way.”

Kids love options.

That would actually be interesting for a good whole class discussion about “How do you like to read?” Like, have a couple of days of silent reading — if you’re working on classroom books — have a couple of days reading out of a print book; try reading on a screen; come back; have a discussion. What felt better? Nuts and bolts: how many pages did you get through? Was there a difference there? What did it feel like? Did it feel… yeah, feeling words that come up when you think about the difference in experiences.

If you have those good, rich discussions, it might be a place to allow kids to choose. It might be another little democratization piece where you’ve got half a dozen kids who really do like reading on their device. You can see they’re still getting through pages. They’re still reading for comprehension. Let them have the option. I would suspect, especially around like a book that you’re reading together in Language Arts, stuff like that, that you’re still going to have a lot of kids skewed towards the print books. That might be connected to: more parents read print books to their kids than do they read online, so there’s that deeper connection.

Audrey: What about response opportunities with online reading or e-book reading? I’m thinking, for instance, of Flipboard, or if you’re reading in some way where kids could comment the text collaboratively.

Mark: Highlight, comment, do all that stuff.

Audrey: Do you think that would have an effect on whether kids would be more drawn to reading?

Mark: You know, I don’t know. The collaborative piece is interesting, but then you are building up more and more almost distractions while you’re making sense of the text yourself.

Audrey: That’s a good point.

Mark: I really like commenting for things like blog posts, for things that are online that are short form, even long form articles. I think that’s great because then it’s sort of like you’re having a town hall meeting and somebody stands up and says something for five minutes, and now we all talk about it. I think there’s definitely a place for that online; there’s a place for that around a lot of texts, but I think that it’s also important that kids are given that space to make meaning themselves. Then, if they come to a classroom discussion, they’ve got something to say. If they’ve been reading Chapter 3 of — I keep saying Huck Finn, it’s a great book, though — and there’s all these comments and stuff, when they come, I think they’re gonna more likely be responding to the comments than they are going to be talking about their own response to the text.

Audrey: Yup, yup.

Mark: I just think about looking at forums, like “This guy is an idiot.” Then I’m like “You guys stopped talking about the text like 15 comments ago…”

Audrey: Yeah, it’s really easy to get off track that way.

Mark: It’s interesting when stuff gets brought to the forefront by a news article and then it directs you to being able to dig in a little bit deeper and kind of see past the four-minute blurb on the radio that’s going to get people interested and shaking their heads like “Kids these days…”

So in conclusion, reports of the demise of reading among kids has been greatly exaggerated.

Everyone can calm down and have a great time queuing up all that delicious summer reading. If you need some ideas to get you started, you couldn’t do better than the Lamoille Union High School Library’s guide to summer reading. Those folks are also on Twitter, where they’re posing a series of #Shelfies, students and educators taking pictures of themselves with what they’re reading. They’re @Lamoillelibrary, all one word, and they’re awesome. Be sure to check them out.

Also, it turns out I was not hallucinating about those splashy e-books about the American West. They’re called “America: The Story of Us,” by Kevin Baker, featuring an introduction by President Obama. Thanks to Mark Olofson for reading the entire Common Sense Media study, and for Erin Wertlieb for sneaking around Mann Hall trying to find a quiet room to record this in.

A couple caveats:

  • Mark’s not a middle-level reading specialist. He’s just really into data and knows how to close-read methodology sections of research papers.
  • This is not us having a crack at NPR, because we do recognize that news agencies operate differently from research institutes. We love NPR! Bunches.
  • Yes, we looked at the print books vs. e-books section of the study, and if you’re curious, we start in on that around 09:45.

Comments are very entirely welcome!

Did you hear about this study? What did you think? What do you think about it now?

Also this podcasting thing is something new for us! We (okay me, Audrey) have wanted to try it for awhile, and it turned out to be easier than I thought it’d be, at least on the technical side. I recorded the conversation with my MacBook Pro’s default microphone straight to Audacity, exported that file as an .aiff and piped everything to GarageBand via iTunes. There were maybe only three times I wished I could phone a friend and ask for help.

The background music is a 1947 recording of “Skokiaan” by the Bulawayo Sweet Rhythm Band. I’m 90% positive that us using it falls under fair use for education, but I figure the only way to know for sure is to invite librarian/Code Camp instructor /copyright superstar Shannon Walters on for the next episode.


Audrey Homan

Audrey Homan is a Vermont-based digital media producer, and producer of The 21st Century Classroom podcast. She's worked in non-profit communications for more than a decade, and in her spare time writes tiny video games and mucks about with augmented reality and arduinos, ably assisted by five dogs. Interviewing students and yelling in PHP are the best parts of her job.

8 thoughts on “About that NPR piece on kids’ reading habits…

What do you think?