True or False? Kids Don’t Read Books Because Parents Don’t Read Books

This is from an article in Forbes Magazine written by Jordan Shapiro.  Contains some very interesting information.


There is a cultural narrative about how electronic devices are pulling children away from books. When I meet with other university professors they often tell me that the students don’t read anymore because their eyeballs are glued to their phones. Technophobes think we are raising a generation that doesn’t understand the value of literature.

Common Sense Media’s new report, entitled “Children, Teens, And Reading,” attempts to offer a “big-picture perspective on children’s reading habits in the United States and how they may have changed during the technological revolution of recent decades.” The big scary takeaway:

According to government studies, since 1984, the percent of 13-year-olds who are weekly readers went down from 70% to 53%, and the percent of 17-year-olds who are weekly readers went from 64% to 40%. The percent of 17-year-olds who never or hardly ever read tripled during this period, from 9% to 27%.

These statistics are startling. But I’m not sure what this has to do with technology.

I’ll admit that I’m biased. I’m an academic. I get paid to read. But my kids (6 and 8) also read a lot on their own. Not only because I require it–30 minutes of reading is a prerequisite to video game time–but also because their dad models good reading behaviors. Dad is always ordering new books; dad is always reading them. In my household, being an adult means feeling comfortable with books. Maturity means having excessive familiarity with long-form written word.

The Common Sense Media report agrees. “Parents can encourage reading,” they explain, “by keeping print books in the home, reading themselves, and setting aside time daily for their children to read.”

Strong correlations exist between these parental actions and the frequency with which children read (scholastic, 2013). For example, among children who are frequent readers, 57% of parents set aside time each day for their child to read, compared to 16% of parents of children who are infrequent readers.

When it comes to books, however, most studies show that the text delivery method is irrelevant. Good reading behavior has nothing to do with technology. E-readers, tablets, laptop screens are all capable of delivering long-form text. Books have nothing to do with paper. In fact, electronic devices only increase access to books. A report from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center released earlier this year explains that “a majority of children ages 2 to 10 have access to a device for electronic reading: 55% have a multipurpose tablet in the home, and 29% have a dedicated e-reader (62% have access to at least one of these devices). Among children with one of these devices in the home, half (49%) engage in electronic reading, either on their own or with their parent (30% of all children).” Books matter; how kids read them doesn’t.

My kids read on the iPad, the e-reader, and paper. I make sure of it. I read to my kids every night. I read with my kids during the day. I do it because I see it as a crucial piece of their education. I can’t just outsource the raising of my children to specialists–and then complain that those teachers are failing. It is obvious to me that parents also need to be involved. They need to make sure their children read books.

Teach your kids to read. And teach your kids that it matters what they read. Renaissance Learning’s annual “What Kids Are Reading Report” tells us a lot about what kids are currently reading and it is not all pretty. Their huge study “does not summarize sales or library data. It uses data from 318 million books read by 9.8 million students in the U.S. to determine what the most popular books are in a given year. It is the most extensive report in the U.S. that reflects K12 reading trends.”

Three interesting findings:

1. Gendered reading starts as early as first grade. Elementary-school boys read tons of “Captain Underpants,” but it doesn’t even make it to the girls’ top 20 list. If this is really what you want, by all means, keep at it. If not, there are plenty of books that are non-gendered; let your kids know that you think more highly of these.

2. Middle schoolers (in particular 6th graders) are reading the most words per student. The average words per student increases through middle school and then starts decreasing again in high school. I see this as evidence that parents are sending the wrong message about books to their children. We value literacy, cheering on small kids to learn to read as quickly as possible. But when these kids become adolescents they attempt to directly emulate their adult role models. If adults don’t read books then trying to act like an adult means not reading books.

3. Books like Twilight and Hunger Games are more popular than literary classics. These days, teachers assign these more often than Shakespeare or Don Quixote. Most of them will tell you that it is because they figure any reading is good reading and books like these increase student engagement. On the one hand, this makes sense. On the other hand, we should remember that popular fiction prioritizes sales over content. They are revenue generators first and literary explorations of the human condition only afterward. This doesn’t necessarily mean popular fiction is bad, but there’s also a reason that certain books have transcended the economic, and political trends of particular centuries.

At the end of the day, how our children read and what our children read says a lot more about adult attitudes about books than it does about the kids’. Model the behaviors and attitudes you want your children to emulate.

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2 thoughts on “True or False? Kids Don’t Read Books Because Parents Don’t Read Books

  1. I think its an interesting article, technology has advanced in many ways.It may have swayed kids away from the traditional reading style, but to say its the parents fault is a tad naive. You either like reading or not. At the end of the day, it started off as a hobby in spare time and then became education. Neither of my parents loved reading, but I loved it as a child.

    Many things have changed since that era this article classes as the love of books. I don’t think people have stopped liking to read, but things have grown more expensive. I mean come on I am 26 and the freddo bar was like 5p and now its like 15p to 20p little price changes like this make a big impact on family lifestyle. Even the price of printed books has gone up, as child growing up I was able to go to WH smiths and buy a pocket money book for like two quid. These no longer exist, to buy a book now its seven quid upwards. So price wise the ebook will win, as it is money more well spent.
    Also with things going up, it means parents have no choice but to work longer, just to provide the basics which a family needs. Growing up being a working mum was a choice now if you want to have a mortgage or live somewhere expensive then it becomes compulsory. Women’s own naivety has lead to some of this change, our longing to be independent and more demanding, has lead to more family breakdowns as a society we continuing strive to be better and want more.
    It was this attitude of wanting more that lead to the recession in the UK when people’s wages just wasn’t enough anymore.

    People have a want now attitude, whether this is the latest technology. cars, or clothes. Whatever the luxury, I think the price tag has made it more about status rather than it being something nice to own. Technology has a lot to answer for really if you think about it. The internet was designed to enable communication but now everything is none on the computer and this is where business, society and selfish attitude comes in.
    Buying goods online, has led to whether we like it or not to shops closing down, meaning less jobs for future generations this all because technology made us become lazy. Growing up a console was a games console not an entertainment suite. Business people are trying to make their products take over everything this isn’t good business sense.
    The more places close down, the more people out of work, the less money people have to spend. The reality most people will not be in work and therefore hindering future generations.
    It is a fact that as a society we do spend more time on technology then ever before, this changing the family lifestyle. But reading really, I hate to say, my library once told me, anything that has words is reading. So with that being said reading is reading.

    People are going to read what is current not what has been written in the past, if we lived in our past of what we think things should be and how people should be. Then we wouldn’t be where we are today.

    • I appreciate your thoughts and comments on the blog. I can certainly understand the points that you brought up. I’m a retired teacher of 30 years and know how important it is for children to enjoy reading. In my classes, I could tell which parents read to their child or had the child read to them every night. You’re right; the cost of books just keeps going up. Not every family has the advantages of being able to do this.

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