Notes from the Smithy...
October 2008 #65


by Frode Jensen of Wordsmiths, publishers of Jensen's Grammar and related books available from Sam Blumenfeld's Alpha-Phonics Homepage:

The National Endowment for the Arts has put out two studies, the most recent coming out in November of 2007. The earlier study, “Reading at Risk,” was published in 2004 and assesses the drop in reading literature from 1982 through 2002. The latest report, “To Read or Not To Read,” speaks to the same issue of declining reading in the overall population of the United States, but it makes a number of other interesting observations. Let’s take a look. Poor reading skills tend to equate with lower pay, lack of or poor employment, and fewer chances for advancement. Poor readers generally don’t read as much as good readers. It is a downward cycle for the poor readers. They don’t read well, so they don’t read much, which means they don’t get the practice they need to improve. Poor readers have lower academic success. Generally speaking, prisoners have worse reading skills than the general population. Also poor readers are less likely to be active in civic life, volunteer less, and vote less than better readers. Being a poor reader definitely brings personal and social disadvantages to the individual and to the society as a whole. “Whether or not people read, and indeed how much and how often they read, affects their lives in crucial ways.”

“Reading correlates with almost every measurement of positive personal and social behavior surveyed. It is reassuring, though hardly amazing, that readers attend more concerts and theater than non-readers, but it is surprising that they exercise more and play more sports—no matter what their educational level. The cold statistics confirm something that most readers know but have mostly been reluctant to declare as fact—books change lives for the better.”

As parents and teachers, it should be obvious that those under your care ought to be taught and encouraged to read, not only for their school work, but for their pleasure as well.

The reports have a number of charts and figures explaining how reading for pleasure has declined over the last twenty years, particularly among the younger folks. While the amount of reading for school and homework has remained about the same during this time period, the amount of reading for pleasure has declined. It is the daily habit of reading for pleasure that makes the difference. Another piece of data showed that while those with more education tend to read more, the decline in reading for pleasure was just as evident among college graduates as it was with those with no college education. As a nation our reading for pleasure is declining in all educational groups.

The most probable reason given, not only by these studies but by others, is the explosion of electronic media that beckons for our time. The internet, video games, movies, television, cell phones, and the like are responsible for sucking up vast quantities of time that once might have been utilized as reading time.

One fascinating part of the study showed that the number of books in a home had a great influence on the test scores of student. Interestingly enough, the test scores measured were in science and history, not literature or English. The chart showed the average test scores grouped by the number of books in the home. The data was from the 2005-2006 tests given to high school seniors.

Science and civics scores range from 0 to 300. History scores range from 0 to 500. Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics

It appears that the mere presence of books, and the more the better, allows for opportunities for children to pick one off the shelf and hopefully read it or at least read in it.

Here are some more findings reported in the study. This data is from the workplace regarding reading.
• 38% of employers find high school graduates “deficient” in reading comprehension, while 63% rate this basic skill “very important.”
• One in five U.S. workers read at a lower skill level than their job requires.
• Remedial writing courses are estimated to cost more than $3.1 billion for large corporate employers and $221 million for state employers.

These findings reflect on the poor reading habits and abilities of a large portion of the workforce in the United States, and it reflects on their education or lack thereof. Wide reading for pleasure and instruction is crucial to building a better understanding of the cultural sea we all swim in. During my teaching years, I often had a sign hanging up in my room which said, “The man who will not read has no advantage over the man who can not read.” I had another one: “He who reads has many teachers.”

Allow me two anecdotal remarks. When I was in high school, I happened to be sick for some days and came back to a test in biology. I had done the work at home, so I was expected to take the test at the regular time. I did and scored well. My teacher liked to put a tough question at the end of each test. He called it his submarine question. I happened to know the answer to that question since I had read an article about the cowbird’s odd nesting practice in my Boy’s Life magazine. Because I had not been in class and heard his talk on the cowbird, I was under suspicion of cheating. I had to bring in my copy of the magazine; that proved that I had known the answer from my independent reading.

The second incident occurred years later when I was teaching. I walked in on a discussion of three folks in the faculty room. They looked at me and asked a question totally unrelated to what I was teaching. I happened to have enough knowledge about the subject and gave them an answer. Then I asked them a question, “Why would you ask me?” The response was, “Because you read.”

My father belonged to the Book of the Month club. We had a bookcase full of various books. An elderly librarian took a liking to me and recommended various authors whom I read. My mom read to me when I was a wee child, but that ceased soon after I was able to read. During my late elementary and high school years, I subscribed to some magazines; I remember Boy’s Life and Popular Electronics being two of them.

Television did not come into my home until I was a junior in high school. We got one station, and it was only on from about 4 PM until maybe 11 PM or midnight, beyond my bedtime anyway. The upshot of the above was that I had time to read; I was encouraged to read, and I liked to read. I still do as my reading list in this newsletter attests.

How can you help young people to read? Obviously you ought to have books around, a good number of them. As parents and teachers, you ought to be encouraging your children-students to read books not tied directly to schoolwork. When I taught in junior high, I read to my students, sometimes short stories, sometimes poems, sometimes essays, and once in a while parts of a novel. The students seemed to like it, and I know it encouraged them to read. I had a personal lending library in my room that grew to 250+ paperbacks, most of which I had read so that I could tailor my recommendations to a given student. Perhaps you might have some discussions about a given piece of writing. As teachers, you can give extra credit for any outside reading so long as it meets some basic criteria.

On the flip side, if possible it would be wise to limit the amount of time spent watching TV, playing video games, or entertaining themselves on facebook. While I find nothing particularly wrong in any of those activities, I do believe they represent the primary competition for reading time. That being said, less electronics and more reading is probably better in all cases. And parents, why not enjoy a good book yourselves one of these days?

Both of the reports mentioned in this article are available at the National Endowment for the Arts website,