In a follow-up to its 2004 study Reading at Risk, the National Endowment for the Arts released a new report today that further documents the decline in reading in the U.S. In To Read or Not to Read, the NEA provides a raft of statistics that it says show that Americans are reading less; that reading comprehension skills are eroding; and that these declines have serious implications for all parts of society.

NEA chairman Dana Gioia said that while the study proves that reading transforms lives—including leading to better-paying jobs—all Americans are reading less. Gioia is particularly concerned that teenagers and recent college graduates are reading less. “The study points to a failure to produce a new generation that reads,” Gioia said. He cited statistics showing that while reading skills have improved for third graders, they have deteriorated for 17-year-olds, and that the percentage of college graduates who engage in literary reading fell substantially between 1982 and 2002.

Although the study does not give any causes for the decline in reading or reading skills, Gioia said it is probably not a fluke that the drop in reading coincided with the rise of the use of the Internet. While teaching reading in elementary schools has improved, once teenagers become more exposed to the “global electronic culture,” their interest in reading plunges. “Teens read less, they read less well, and they do less well in school and in life,” Gioia said.

As Reading at Risk did when it was released, Gioia hopes To Read or Not to Read will serve as a wakeup call to the entire nation about addressing the reading problem. The Reading at Risk report generated extensive press coverage and led to NEA's Big Read program, but Gioia acknowledged that much more action is needed. He said he would like to see reading education improved at all levels, particularly in colleges. Gioia said educators need to do a better job promoting reading as something that is both fun and beneficial. He would also like to see the media give more attention to reading, books and authors. “Books have been marginalized,” Gioia said. He speculated that if there was more book coverage in general, reading would increase since “people like to read what their friends are reading”—proven, Gioia noted, by the success of Oprah Winfrey's book club. The final piece of the puzzle would be for both political and business leaders to address the reading decline. Gioia emphasized that America “can't dumb down society” and expect to stay competitive in the global economy.

Management, business and financial Professional and related Total
Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics
Proficient 19% 42% 61%
Basic 8% 10% 18%
Below Basic 3% 4% 7%

Hours/minutes spent reading Weekdays Weekends and Holidays
Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of labor statistics
Total, 15 years and over :20 :26
15 to 24 years :07 :10
25 to 34 years :09 :11
35 to 44 years :12 :16
45 to 54 years :17 :24
55 to 64 years :30 :39
65 years and over :50 1:07

Reading scores range from 0 to 500.
Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics
Almost every day 302
Once or twice a week 292
Once or twice a month 285
Never or hardly ever 274

1984 2004
Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics
9-year-olds 53% 54%
13-year-olds 35% 30%
17-year-olds 31% 22%

1992 2005
Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics
40% 35%