The Decline of Childhood Leisure Reading (and what you can do about it)
Do you remember reading for fun when you were little? Perhaps your mom took you to the library on summer afternoons to browse the shelves. If you were like me, you came home with a stack of books. Once home, you’d curl up on the couch and lose yourself in your favorite novel. Or, maybe you would lay on the floor of your bedroom and flip through picture books. Of course, long rides and vacations demanded picking out just the right book to kill the time.
Sadly, according to recent studies, this sort of leisure reading is becoming increasingly rare among young people.
Survey Says: Less Children Read for Fun
Surveys conducted by the National Association of Educational Progress (NAEP) conducted in 2019-2020 revealed that leisure reading among young people has drastically declined over the past decade. This is the lowest levels since the question was first asked in 1984 (source). The survey targeted children between ages of 9 and 13, when most children are in the developmental stage of their reading skills. In 1984, 53% of 9-year olds said they read for fun. By 2012 this number had declined to 11% and was down to a meager 9% by 2020. Among 13-year olds, only 17% said they read for fun, down from 35% in 1984.
Perhaps most alarming were the percentages of children who reported never reading for fun. Among the 13-year old age group, a whopping 30% said they never read for fun; by contrast, this number was 8% in 1984. The outlook was slightly better for 9-year olds—only 16% reported never reading for fun. However, this number has almost doubled since 1984.
The NAEP began a survey of 17-year olds as well, but this had to be canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The bit of data they did manage to gather, however, suggested a similar trend amongst older students: 27% of 17-year olds said they never read for fun, and those who do are doing it are at levels below just a decade ago.
The survey also included indicators like gender and ethnicity (girls are more likely to read for fun than boys, and black and Hispanic children were less likely than whites and Asians). Overall, the trend is clear: the simple practice of leisure reading in childhood is sharply declining.
Why Does it Matter?
Should we be alarmed by this? Yes. Studies have demonstrated that reading for leisure carries a host of benefits, including better vocabulary, mathematical, and spelling skills. Other studies have found that leisure reading builds empathy, social skills, and decision-making skills. In fact, reading for pleasure was more important to these successes than even socioeconomic status.
This means that when children read less, they are not just missing out on the richness of the literary world. They are being hampered in the development of important social, interpersonal, and academic skills.
Why Leisure Reading is Declining
What is behind this alarming decline? Perhaps you think screens are the culprit. That was my first assumption as well, and that is certainly part of it. A 2018 study from the American Psychological Association found that children are spending record amounts of time on social media. This impacts leisure reading negatively in two ways. First, it simply leaves less time available for reading. Second, the sort of fragmentized, click-bait, short attention span content that characterizes social media conditions the brain towards browsing through content. Compare this to the engaged, attentive reading a book requires. In other words, more time on social media makes it more difficult for children to engage with traditional print media.
However, screens are not the only problem. Another culprit is homework. If you have ever wondered why it seems school children are busier with homework today than when you were a child, it’s because they are. The 21st century is shaping up to become a very homework-heavy epoch in American education. As of 2019, American children were averaging twice as much homework as their counterparts in the 1990s. There has been plenty of studies done on the subject, much if it nuanced and subject to debate. All sides so appear to agree that children are being assigned homework younger than ever before, and more of it. This means much more assigned reading.
Force Feeding Books vs. Creating a Leisure-Reading Atmosphere
So what? Isn’t it good that school children are reading? While we may think that just getting students to read is more important than what or how they read, this is not the case. There is a fundamentally different cognitive response to tasks that are forced upon us versus tasks we undertake for our own leisure. Compelling a 15-year old to slog through thirty-pages of a boring sociology textbook isn’t going to nurture a love of reading the way curling up on the couch with Lord of the Rings does. Children who are forced to spend more time reading for homework will be less likely to devote leisure time to reading. This is comparable to a man who spends all day loading 80-pound sacks into a semi-trailer and so isn’t going to feel like bench-pressing when he gets home.
One final factor is that adults, too, are reading less for leisure. A 2019 survey on time use by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the average American adult reads only 16 minutes a day. When adults do not read for fun, it is overwhelmingly likely that their children will not either. The decline in adult reading is a crisis in its own right. It impacts the reading habits of children because, outside of school, children can only access reading material in the context of opportunities created by parents. If parents don’t model reading behaviors, if they don’t drive their children to the library, if they don’t moderate screen time, if they don’t have books strewn about the house, if they don’t actively encourage reading by word & example, then why would we expect children to discover pleasure in reading?
Bucking the Trend
Obviously this is a large societal problem that cannot be redressed by a few well-meaning life hacks. There are, however, some things we can do to at least reverse the trend within our own sphere of influence…
1. Moderate Children’s Social Media Time
Many homeschool parents aleady have policies about how much screen time a child is allowed to have and what access (if any) they have to social media. This seems to be essential. Not just to allow children have time to read, but to make sure they maintain the ability to read traditional print media at all. If your children do spend a lot of time online, consider a system or proportional access—”If you want to play video games for a half hour, you need to spend a half hour reading any book of your choice first.” The reading is voluntary, but conditional, and they still get to choose what they will read.
2. Reconsider Your Homework
If you are assigning a lot of mandatory reading for homework, perhaps take some time to reflect on whether the amount you are assigning is reasonable. Obviously homework is supposed to be challenging, and there will always be times when it seems dull. But ask yourself questions like, “Does my child seem to be doing homework constantly? Does she have leisure time? Is he wrestling with a single text for hours on end?” If the answer to any of these is yes, it might be prudent to reconsider your homeschool’s mandatory reading load.
3. Leisure Reading Class
Alternately, instead of an English class with a dedicated heavy reading load, you can substitute formal lessons with leisure-reading time. At a certain time each day, your child has a leisure reading hour where they are free to read whatever they wish to read.
At Homeschool Connections, I often recommend allowing tweens and teens to choose their literature courses. They pick the books and can then participate in a live class to enjoy the book with other students. Or, they can watch recorded lectures to go deeper into analysis on their own.
4. Model Leisure Reading
Model leisure reading in your own free time. Are you spending too much time scrolling? Set the standard by increasing the amount of time you spend in leisure reading. You can do this with your children; read a book to them for fun, or have family reading time where everyone sits quietly with a book of their choice and reads together. Strew books about the house, especially ones that appeal to your children’s special interests, so they will be more likely to peruse the strewn books.
5. Library Trips
Most homeschoolers already take frequent trips to the library, but if you don’t, add this to your weekly routine. It can be a structured thing (“Monday afternoon is library day!”) or just something you prioritize when you have free time. There are other options as well; you can take them to used book stores, comic shops, or any place that reinforces the idea of reading as a hobby.
6. Start a Book Club
I led a homeschool teen book club for over 15 years. At the first club meeting, I presented the reading list to the teens for the entire year. One of the teens looked at me with pleading eyes and said, “Mrs. Wittmann, these are all books our parents make us read. I thought this was going to be a fun book club.” I took the reading list from the students and threw it away. From that day forward, the teens voted on the books we read, though I had veto power. Interestingly, they chose a lot of the books I had on that original list and I never had to use my veto power. However, giving them the ability to choose their own books made all the difference in their engagement.
Homeschool book clubs can be for any age. My 8-year-old grandson started a reading club with some of his friends. Keep it simple, fun, and let the kids have a say in the books. Then sit back and watch the fruits of your labor
It can be a challenge to go against social trends, but with a little purposefulness, you can raise your children to be avid hobby readers with all the benefits that come with leisure reading including social, interpersonal, and academic skills.
If you need some good, solid reading lists for your own personal reading, to strew, or to help your children make good choices, we have quite a few archived: Catholic Homeschool Reading Lists.