Is There A “Decline” In Kids Reading Or Is It Just Shifting Forms?

Nov. 16, 2010 When I lobbed the “what do you read just for fun” query at some middle and high school kids recently, reactions ran the gamut from quizzical, “what do you mean by “for fun” to disturbing, “I don’t have TIME to read for fun” or “I have too much school work”…and yet their nose-in-the-text-screen antics tells another story by sheer observation.

Kids are CONSTANTLY reading for fun, even if it’s ‘user generated content’ in the form of text zings, Facebook snippets, Flip cams/Animoto storytelling, or reading pity party dramarama in FML humor style.

To me it’s kind of silly when media chatter takes on an ‘old school/new school’ face off like rivals at a homecoming dance, because as kids voice preferences for ebooks, ipads, interactives, augmented reality reading (seriously!?) scholars start questioning what “The Future of the Book” looks like, (interesting IDEO video)—It may just be that kids want to have a two-way say in how a story ends or what’s to come of a character in a non-linear form…it all depends on what the definition of ‘is, is’ ya know?

So what IS the state of kids’ reading for fun?

On one hand, we have Harry Potter and Twilight tomes that turn reading en masse into a pop culture happening, making its way to multiple platforms far beyond the printed page (my favorite is when popular themes springboard into real life pursuits with meaning, like the Harry Potter which I wrote about earlier here in tackling the darkness of Darfur—they have an impending Deathly Hallows Campaign alerting the world in Dumbledore Army style to the dangers of global warming, poverty, and genocide)

On the other hand, reading via gizmos, apps and ebooks have ALSO  reignited interest from classics to e-innovations sometimes blending both as you’ll see in Kids, Teens and Reading for Fun, our guest post by digital, gaming and gender pro, Sara M. Grimes PhD originally published at her blog Gamine Expedition.

So even though educator Alfie Kohn blames standardized tests for kids reading less…and RIF: Reading is Fundamental focuses on access to print materials as the key driver for literacy…and Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science makes a strong case for displaced reading/writing skills due to videogames…*I* sometimes think we need to alter our ‘view’ of what defines reading, away from the visual snapshot of a crumpled paperback at poolside or a copy of Steinbeck stuffed in a jeans pocket and more toward the open-ended interpretations that merit both form and function at any given time.

As much as I love mobile and am a self-identifying infovore, the eyestrain and unresolved brain cell damage issues with smart phones still have me rockin’ the books in print as a preference…

Mind you, even that’s changed…

Now that there are books offering an “experience” unlocking other portions of media via ScanLife barcode integrations like NYTimes Tech blogger Nick Bilton’s new book “I Live In The Future and Here’s How it Works” (full feature forthcoming) we can have ‘both’ and serve up our reader experience as a custom one, any way we wish down the line.

Will this create kids that are too myopic and self-centric? Or will it enable “The Power of Pull” to serve nuggets we ASK for to enhance us as learners and readers with freshness in playfully engaged 21st century style? That’s a whole separate post.

Please welcome Shaping Youth’s gaming guru/advisory board member and Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Information, University of Toronto, Sara M. Grimes with more…

Kids, Teens and Reading For Fun

by Sara M. Grimes, Ph.D

Shaping Youth Correspondent, Advisory Board Member

Two studies pertaining to the current state of recreational reading among kids and teens have come out recently, providing a mixed bag of findings and a shared message of optimism about the future of reading (or rather e-reading) among young people.
The first reports on findings from a survey of more than 2,000 children (ages 6 to 17) and their parents conducted by children’s book publisher Scholastic last spring. According to a recent article by Julie Bosman for The New York Times, the Scholastic study found hope in the rising popularity of digital or “e-readers” such as the iPad and Kindle. For example,
Many children want to read books on digital devices and would read for fun more frequently if they could obtain e-books. But even if they had that access, two-thirds of them would not want to give up their traditional print books.

Well, they say they would, anyway.

While only a quarter (about 25%) of the kids aged 9 to 17 years surveyed reported having already read a “book” on a “digital device” in the past (not sure what constitutes as a book here, but digital device is described as a category encompassing everything from e-readers to computers), 57% said that they would be interested in doing so in the future. And while only 6% of the parents surveyed owned an e-reader at the time the study was conducted, another 16% said they “planned to buy one in the next year” (Bosman, 2010). More significantly perhaps, was the finding that 83% of the parents surveyed said they would “allow or encourage their children to use the e-readers” (Bosman, 2010). With amazingly creative, interactive titles like Atomic Antelope’s Alice for the iPad, I can definitely see why kids and parents are so excited:

At the same time, the parents surveyed expressed the usual reservations and concerns about the role of digital technologies in their children’s lives, particularly around displacement effects (e.g. more time with new media would mean less time spent reading) and the fragmented/ing nature of multitasking.

One of the issues raised in Bosman’s article that I found particularly interesting was that parents were worried that their kids’ multitasking habits, combined with the fast pace of other digital media contents, would prevent their children from every getting truly engrossed in a novel. Given all the new data emerging about the negative relationship between multitasking and focus, I wonder if this may be the case…even if just in terms of habits and norms.

Finally, as with every study of this nature that I’ve read to date, the Scholastic survey also examined the relationship between parents and children when it comes to reading habits.

As Bosman describes, “Children ages 9 to 11 are more likely to be frequent readers if their parents provide interesting books to read at home and set limits on time spent using technology like video games.” Indeed. And with that I give you the following, brilliant David Malki Wondermark comic strip:

©2008 Wondermark by David Malki (#442)

The second study comes out of the University of Maryland, where researcher Sandra Hofferth has been analyzing the daily activities of teens aged 12 to 18. The study was described in a Washington Post article by Donna St. George, but you can also read working papers outlining the results of the original study here: The “Hurried” Child: Myth vs. Reality and Validation of a Diary Measure of Children’s Physical Activities.

Using daily time-use diaries of a “nationally representative sample” (which, upon further examination of the original research paper, appears to actually mean 92 participants – 38 male and 54 female – drawn from a larger public school sample of 9 to 17 year olds, half of whom were from low income families and 30% of whom were minorities). Hofferth found that reading for pleasure had dropped 23% between 2003 and 2008 (which I find incredibly significant for a 5 year time frame), decreasing from 65 minutes a week to 50 minutes a week. She also found that tween/teens aged 12 to 14 had experienced the greatest decrease.

Nonetheless, the article, Hofferth and the other experts interviewed make a point of qualifying these findings, trying to construct the more positive argument that reading may not be decreasing as much as changing form. For instance, Hofferth proposes that: “They could be reading on the cellphone, in games, on the Web, on the computer. It doesn’t mean they’re not reading, but they’re not reading using the printed page.”

Kim Patton, president of the Young Adult Library Services Association, is quoted saying basically the same thing: “It’s not that they’re reading less; they’re reading in a different way.” What we need now are studies (rather than educated guesses and anecdotes) that pay specific attention to these different ways of reading, including focused analyses of emerging technologies, applications, etc.:

To dream again. on Storybird

And in studies that have addressed this possibility head on – by taking a more nuanced approach to definitions of “reading,” for instance, or by deconstructing what kids are reading as well as when – this does in fact seem to be the case. St George points us to the Kaiser Family Foundation report released last January, which found that the decline in “reading” among young people aged 8 to 18 (from 43 minutes to 38 minutes a day), was almost “entirely related to magazines and newspapers.” Conversely, the study found that  time spent reading books remained steady at about 25 minutes a day for the past five years.

In an interview with St. George that also appears in the Washington Post article, KFF researcher Victoria Rideout stated: “The data say to me that kids have a love of reading that is enduring, and that is different than other things teens do.”

This is certainly supported by industry statistics, which show significant and continued health in the sales of young adult fiction…to the point that YA author David Levithan (Wide Awake, Nick & Nora’s Infinite Playlist) has proclaimed: “This is the second golden age for young-adult books” (cited in Reno, 2008). Lots to ponder…

As an aside, and just for fun, be sure to cast your vote(s) this week in the CBC Book Club‘s ultimate throw down for the title of top YA character. The first round lets you vote in four different categories – “Super Sleuths” (my pick = Nancy Drew), “Adventurers” (my pick = Katniss Everdeen, The Hunger Games), “The Girl Next Door” (my pick = Anne Shirley, Anne of Green Gables), and “Magical and Mystical” (my pick = Pippi Longstocking).

About the Author: Sara M. Grimes is a balanced voice of reason bridging the gaming and digital worlds as a specialist in Shaping Youth’s advisory board cadre of professional heavyhitters.

Sara’s also Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Information, University of Toronto,  PhD in Communication, and a researcher of children’s new media & literature; digital games and the intersection of play, technology & transmedia intertexts. Her full CV is available at (I highly recommend you follow Sara on Twitter too, she gets to go to all the cool conferences and has mastered the essence of 140c tweets to pack a powerful punch)

Visual Credits: Lead photo: ©Maurice Sendak, Reading is Fun above Alice/gloves visual ©2010 CBC Book Club

The Future of the Book. from IDEO on Vimeo.



  1. Thanks Amy & Sarah – really appreciated your insights and review of the research Sarah.

    I have been concerned for a while about the way media is presenting a picture of the current generation of kids not reading as much purely by measuring the number of books read on paper. I am firmly of the view that in our current landscape of literacy discussions, in education particularly, continuing to evaluate reading levels based on books with covers is an increasingly inaccurate way to measure. I have written about it a couple of times on my own blog (but not nearly as well as Sarah has here). The multi-media interactive landscape provides so many opportunities for kids to read, but more importantly develop literacy skills that go beyond just reading words on a page – skills that will be needed more and more in the digital era.

    All this from a guy who still prefers struggling with a broadsheet newspaper rather than reading the news online 😉

    Keep up the great work – Chris

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