According to Erica Green and Dana Goldstein of The New York Times, reading scores on a major exam administered to public school students across the United States, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), have declined in half of the testing states since 2017, the last time the test was administered. Specifically, “the average eighth-grade reading score declined in more than half of the states” with just “34 percent of eighth graders proficient in reading, down from 36 percent in 2017.”
While this scorecard from NAEP shows that ground has been lost in the reading race since 2017, the results, on the whole, are better than they were decades ago. For example, in 1992, more than 70% of our country’s eighth graders failed to show proficiency on this same test (see figure below).
That young readers have lost any ground, however, is disturbing. And It’s easy to point the finger at possible culprits: social media, technology, and the myriad ways in which our children (and we) are distracted and disconnected. Less time reading for pleasure, spending time outdoors away from screens, and hanging around at the lunch and dinner tables talking about books we’ve been reading and what’s on our minds. Indeed, when I asked some of my educator friends why they think reading proficiency rates are so low, I got these responses: “Cell phones.” “Distracted living.” “Attention span of a tweet.” “Test-prep induced hatred for reading.” “Lack of content knowledge.” “Reluctance to go back and reread.” “Over-scheduled kids.” “Bad standardized tests that kids can’t succeed on.” “Teachers not teaching phonics anymore.”
This last point was explored in Emily Hanford’s important 2018 American Public Media Report showing that children are being given uneven reading instruction across the country because many teachers have moved away from phonics for a “whole language” approach. I have wondered whether the pedagogical shift toward using excerpts and short, disconnected passages to teach children has undermined their natural interest in storytelling and narrative, which encourages readers to focus for longer periods of time in anticipation of interesting developments in characters, plots, and language. In “Why Deeply Diving into Content Could Be the Key to Reading Comprehension,” Katrina Schwartz reminds us that cognitive science researchers “have agreed for decades that the most important element of reading comprehension is knowledge and vocabulary about the topic,” and cites a famous case study out of France demonstrating that content-rich curriculum does a better job at securing proficient readers regardless of their backgrounds than a skills-based approach.
I haven’t done a deep enough dive into the research to fully understand this trajectory from 1992 to 2017 — or why things have, at least momentarily, backslid. Although the delivery mechanisms have changed over time, there should still be a way to nurture and develop strong readers who seek out a good — and long — book to read.