American Students get “F” in Reading

The findings of this study are not a huge surprise. I know my kids did not get nearly as good an education as I did and that was in the same school districts. But even I was shocked at this statistic:

The NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) reports that in 2006, 15-to-24-year-olds spent just 7 to 10 minutes a day voluntarily reading anything at all. It also notes that between 1992 and 2003, the percentage of college graduates who tested as “proficient in reading prose” declined from 40 percent to 31 percent.

reading.jpgI didn’t enjoy reading in the lower grades but class requirements demanded it. They also demanded reading a lot of different things from Mark Twain to Shakespeare, Ogden Nash to Edgar Allen Poe. We begrudgingly became good readers and as adults found out what an advantage that was.

• Good reading skills correlate strongly with higher earnings and more job opportunities.
• Reading skills also correlate with increased voting, volunteerism, charity work, attendance at cultural events and even exercising and playing sports.

The report admits that it did not take into account time spent reading material online and certainly that is a new and time consuming medium. But I’m pretty confident that the 15-24 year old group is not spending their online time reading the classics or even good contemporary fiction.

The bottom line here is the public schools have gone to hell, the teachers who came up through the same system don’t have the skills to teach above their own substandard level, and it’s just going to get worse.

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9 Comments on “American Students get “F” in Reading”


  1. I graduated from high school almost 35 years ago. You could have written this same post then. Public schools by their very nature are geard toward the average or below average student. I spent 4 years in a private school prior to high school. I was doing college level work in 7th grade. So public high school was like a vacation.

    The other thing is that schools never teach you the basic skills you need in the corporate world. Even a college degree doesn’t really prepare you to go to work. Here’s just some of the things it would be great to learn in school – negotiation, conflict management, group facilitation, sales, financial analysis, project management, team building..

  2. expatbrian Says:

    Thanks Steve, I agree with you. I was a sociology student but would assume that such skills as the ones you mention would be part of a business or MBA curriculum.


  3. Actually, business schools and MBAs prepare you to be more of an accountant than anything. I get a lot of MBAs and some PHds in training all the time and while they’re smart if they haven’t worked in business for a while or been an entreprenuer they are often at ground zero with everyone else. Part of it is that you can’t really learn things like leadership in the classroom. You have to spend a lot of time leading others.

  4. Capt Fogg Says:

    From the perspective of someone older than you, the focus on business; training people to be good workers, is in itself a descent from prior educational objectives. Very little I learned in school had anything to do with business. In college we used to see the tiny minority of business majors as only a short step up from the agriculture majors.

    Of course there’s nothing snobbier than a 20 year old with the beginnings of an education, but in later years when I employed people I was shocked every day at the cultural ignorance, the lack of vocabulary, the innocence of grammar and language structure I encountered in newly manufactured business grads. It wasn’t hard to assume, even if incorrectly, that what communications skills were taught consisted only of a technique for stringing together clumsy, rebarbate cliche’s in lieu of clear language. Does it say anything about our educational system that people who prefer “negative impactation” to “harm” or “efforting” to “attempting” manage to graduate?

    I simply don’t understand people who are not passionate about reading and 50 books a year is a starvation diet for me. It’s been that way since I was three years old and it often made me a poor student since I would neglect my little reading workbooks to read classics. I’ve never regretted it, but I fear that if I had to live life all over again, I’d never find a place in school.

    Writing strictly from my own prejudice, I do find it depressing that education has become something less than an opportunity to pursue a host of unrelated interests and more of an industrial process of turning people into spare parts for corporate machines.


  5. The real culprit is the curriculum approach to education. The subject by subject approach focused mostly on knowledge is very convenient for teachers but it’s not an effective way to learn. Think about anything that you learned to do well and I would guess that the formal education part was very small.

    In a curriculum approach you learn pieces and parts but never how they fit together in a way that you would actually use them. Physics and math actually relate to literature and art but they’re not taught that way.

    A better way is to determine the outcomes you want and then map out the formal education, experience and practice that will be required to get there. Some of these outcomes will take a month and others will take years. For example, I’ve often heard that schools wanted students to be able to be critical thinkers. Okay so the course is critical thinking and it probably stretches over a ten year period. Instead of the reverse where you go to class and you hope critical thinking wears off.

    We do it this way in the corporate world all the time because we aren’t invested in a 100 year old system of school buildings, K-12 and teachers who have degrees by subject.

    Take your example. If schools had a course in getting ready to work and you learned how to speak and write in a way that would advance your career that would be much more useful. In fact, most of the things you need to be a part of the “corporate machine” are not taught in school. Have you ever seen a high school that had these subjects: negotiation, sales, team building, problem solving, leadership, conflict resolution, performance mangement and financial analysis.

    By the way, if schools taught kids how to read a 2000 wpm they would enjoy reading more and probably read 50 books a month.

  6. Capt Fogg Says:

    Good points. If there is any institution that ‘s more behind the times and the technology, it’s our educational system.

  7. GFS3 Says:

    It’s about instilling joy in reading. While I don’t agree that American education has gone to hell — it is certainly broken. One problem is forcing kids to read the classics before they are ready. Shakespeare and Dickens are difficult reads — even for college students. Why force 9th graders to tackle them right off the bat?

    Here’s a better way:

    http://darkpartyreview.blogspot.com/2007/11/essay-fixing-our-reading-problem.html


  8. I read your post. Good ideas. Two ideas that go along with this. First, that reading is a skill like anything else and you get better at it over time with coaching and practice. Today, we stop working on reading after the first grade unless you have a problem. The instruction shouldn’t stop until students have reached a mastery level in reading.

    Second, it’s best to structure things from simple to complex, easy to hard. Getting the right sequence of books to read would help build confidence and skill more quickly. Many of the so called classics were written in a time when the English of the day was very different. Starting with more modern language makes more sense.

    Finally, I’d like to put in a plug for audio books. Hearing great readers builds an interest in books. We live 10 miles from just about anything so we always have a book we’re listening to rather than the radio. In a year we easily listen to thirty to fifty books. Some of these books I would have never read but they are highly entertaining to listen to. The key is less in the story and more in the reader. Ironically some of the best readers are singers. We listened to a Louis Lamour series read by Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Chris Christopherson. Just outstanding.

    Other readers I’d recommend are Joe Montagne, Tim Curry, Arliss Howard, Ken Howard

  9. expatbrian Says:

    Well, this is by far the most intellectual and sophisticated comment thread I’ve ever had here. Thanks to all of you and for the link, GFS3…some good ideas there, too. Steve, sounds to me like you need to write another book geared towards educational proficiency. Cap’n, you once again astound with the elegance of your language.
    I think the key here, as GFS3 said in his blog, is to be exposed to books that will excite you and are on your level. They can get more complex as reading skills mature. I still remember the first book I ever enjoyed. It was Kon Tiki by Thor Hyerdaul (sp). Unfortunately I was about 12 by the time I read it. Everyting up until then was meaningless and thats why I don’t remember it.


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