PROOF POINTS: Why reading comprehension is deteriorating

Scholars weigh decline in reading habits and other theories

Before the pandemic, eighth graders’ reading comprehension declined substantially. Since then, scholars have been trying to figure out why their scores dropped so much between 2017 and 2019 on a highly regarded national test known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP. 

Researchers at the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit research organization, are digging into whether kids are reading less — perhaps distracted by their digital devices. The emerging answer is that yes, young teens seem to be reading less and enjoying reading less. But the decline in book reading might not be the main culprit in our national comprehension problem. And separate international studies of 15-year-olds and fourth graders indicate that eighth grade reading habits aren’t telling the whole story.

First, the numbers. In survey questions that accompany the NAEP test, eighth graders reported how much time they spent reading outside of school. The percentage of public school students who said they read 30 minutes or more a day, besides homework, declined by 4 percentage points from 53 percent in 2017 to 49 percent in 2019. These same young teens were also less likely to say they talked about books or went to the library. Positive attitudes about reading fell too. Eighth grade students were less likely to agree that reading was one of their favorite activities or that they enjoyed going to a bookstore.

At first, the declines in reading habits and attitudes seemed to fit together with the decline in reading scores and tell a simple story: those who read more scored higher. But when the researchers broke the data down by state, the neat correlation between reading and comprehension fell apart. There were some states, such as Mississippi, where students read less but scores didn’t drop. And in other states, such as Rhode Island, reading habits were more stable, but scores slid nonetheless. 

“It’s perplexing,” said Elena Forzani, an assistant professor of education at Boston University, in reaction to this reading data, which is still unpublished but was presented at two education conferences in April 2021. “We know that reading motivation causes kids to pick up books and read more. And the more and more you read, the better you get at it.”

Forzani, a reading specialist who was not involved in this analysis, wonders if current survey questions are out of step with our digital age and fail to capture all the new kinds of reading that young teens are doing every day. Perhaps reading posts on social media and clicking on article links in Google searches are useful types of reading too. Students might be learning new words and information and thinking critically about texts, boosting their comprehension skills in the same way that old-fashioned book reading does.

“If a kid just wants to sit and watch videos all the time, I wouldn’t want my kids doing that either,” Forzani said. “It’s a passive activity. But if they’re creating their own videos, that’s much more active and requires complex and critical cognitive processes. And I think that’s what matters more.”

Forzani said reading is “hugely important.” Her advice to parents is to allow kids to read whatever they want to, even if it’s “Captain Underpants” and you would rather an older child choose a more challenging book. “It’s always been the case that we want to let kids read whatever motivates them,” Forzani said, “because if they’re not motivated to read, nothing else is going to work.” 

Forzani thinks the slide in eighth grade test scores could be the result of the way that schools teach reading to struggling students. “We tend to take those kids and throw lower level instruction at them,” she said. “They get these rote phonics programs. It’s all focused on learning to read. They’re not having complex discussions about a text. At the same time, we’re also taking away science and history instruction where kids can develop knowledge and where they can put comprehension strategies into practice. We’re teaching kids to read in a content and motivational vacuum.” 

Forzani’s theory for why reading comprehension is deteriorating is compelling, especially since the steepest falls were among low-achieving students but it still needs to be backed up by research

The striking decline in students’ reading habits may be a relatively recent phenomenon in the United States. International data from prior years doesn’t reveal that American students are less enthusiastic about reading. 

Martin Hooper, a senior researcher at the American Institutes for Research who led the eighth grade reading study, has also been digging into reading habits around the world and he’s found an even earlier decrease in reading and reading attitudes in other countries. Between 2000 and 2018, fewer 15-year-olds reported reading for enjoyment in 31 out of 39 countries and jurisdictions surveyed by the Program in International Student Assessment (PISA), which also released its own report on reading habits in the digital age on May 4, 2021. The  U.S. was one of the few exceptions, bucking the disappointing trend here. 

American fourth graders also didn’t show the same antipathy toward reading that their international counterparts did in surveys by the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). Elsewhere around the world fourth graders had more negative attitudes about reading in 2016 than fourth graders did in 2001 in 13 out of 20 countries and jurisdictions. In this survey of elementary school children, parents had even more negative attitudes toward reading than their children. Parents reported reading less for enjoyment in 15 out of 18 countries and jurisdictions. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” said Hooper.

We’re all struggling.