Reading fundamentals

The Baltimore Sun

Fewer Americans are reading, especially for pleasure, according to a report from the National Endowment for the Arts. The report links the decline in voluntary reading to lower academic test scores, a potential for poor professional performance and decreased social engagement. Those consequences signal the need for smart interventions by schools, parents and communities.

That would certainly be true in Baltimore, where standardized reading scores drop off in the middle grades and too many school libraries are either woefully inadequate or nonexistent.

The most recent NEA report synthesizes data from more than 40 studies. It covers fiction and nonfiction reading habits, including books, newspapers, magazines and online reading. The research showed that Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 typically spend seven minutes of their daily leisure time reading, compared with nearly two hours of watching television. Only 30 percent of 13-year-olds read every day, a low enough number but at least distinguishable from the 13 percent who are considered non-readers. By age 17, however, the proportions of daily readers and non-readers is much closer - at 22 percent and 19 percent, respectively.

It's not surprising, then, that reading scores among high school seniors have been slowly falling and employers increasingly complain that workers' reading comprehension skills have declined. The study also found that non-readers are less likely to engage in positive civic and social activities, such as volunteering, exercising or attending cultural events.

Reversing the trend requires starting early - as other research studies have shown - with more parents reading to their young children and keeping their homes filled with books. Schools can reinforce the habit even before kindergarten. Maryland, for example, has an approved preschool curriculum that emphasizes reading. The state's Reading First program aims to re-engage low-income middle school students in reading, although the study suggests that all students could benefit from the program. And restoring school libraries, particularly in Baltimore, should be more of a priority.

Maryland communities, including Baltimore, have tried to promote more civic engagement by encouraging residents to collectively read and discuss a specific book. Such efforts deserve widespread support.

The NEA report makes clear that reading really is fundamental, for individuals and for communities.

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