Teens are still reading for fun, say media specialists

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 31, 2010; 10:44 PM

Teens read for pleasure, even in the digital age.

That's how it looks here in a Rockville library, where 14-year-old Olivia Smith is propped in a comfy chair, deep into a Japanese novel genre called manga. She has already been reading on the computer for an hour, and later, when she texts her friends, she will still be turning pages between messages. "I'm sort of a bookworm," she says.

Recreational reading has changed for teens in an era of ebooks and laptops and hours spent online, but experts and media specialists say there are signs of promise in spite of busy lives and research findings that show traditional book reading is down.

"It's not that they're reading less; they're reading in a different way," says Kim Patton, president of the Young Adult Library Services Association.

A detailed analysis into the trend on reading for fun - in books, newspapers and magazines - comes from researcher Sandra Hofferth, of University of Maryland, who analyzed the detailed daily time-use diaries of a nationally representative sample of children 12 to 18.

Pleasure reading dropped 23 percent in 2008, compared with 2003, from 65 minutes a week to 50 minutes a week - with the greatest falloff for those ages 12 to 14. Still, she says: "They could be reading on the cell phone, in games, on the Web, on the computer. It doesn't meant they're not reading, but they're not reading using the printed page."

Michael Kamil, an education researcher at Stanford, sees it much the same way, noting that teens "still read quite a bit but in different ways and for different reasons than the adults believe they should," he says.

The question of what really constitutes "reading" has been debated for decades, says Kamil, whose own definition is broad: It includes not just books, magazines, newspapers and blogs but text messages, multimedia documents, certain computer games, and many Web pages. "It's all important," he said.

Recreational book reading looked stronger in a January study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which found more reading overall than the Maryland study. For kids 8 to 18, it reported a decline from 43 minutes a day to 38 a minutes a day, entirely related to magazines and newspapers. At the same time, students reported online reading of those publications - an average of two minutes a day.

"The data say to me that kids have a love of reading that is enduring and that is different than other things teens do," said co-author Victoria Rideout.

Clearly, books still can create a phenomenon.

Think "Harry Potter." The "Twilight" series. And lately, "The Hunger Games," a science-fiction trilogy that librarian Deborah Fry says has created "quite a waiting list" in her Loudoun library branch in Ashburn.

"Even with all the distractions, even with all the technology, there are books that break through," says Deborah Taylor, of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, who has worked in the trenches of teen reading for more than 35 years.

The way Taylor sees it, getting teens to read for fun has always been a challenge, but now, time is a bigger obstacle. Still, she says, technology "can also pull you together with people who like the books you like" on fan sites and in online forums, for example.

Patton, of the Young Adult Library Services Association, says sales for young adult books have outpaced adult books and that "The Hunger Games" series is now as nearly big a phenomenon as "Twilight." Teen favorites also include so-called "graphic novels," such as manga, that include illustrations or comic panels.

"No matter what teens are doing, we need to show them they need to keep reading on their radar and make time for it," Patton said.

Randi Adleberg, head of the high school English program at Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax County, says that overall, she thinks the trend is positive. If reading online and in game-playing are taken into account, "I think the digital age has probably increased reading," she said.

For some students, traditional book reading for pleasure is not a first choice because they equate reading with schoolwork.

Ross Vincent, 16, wishes he had more time to read but says he's sidelined by other endeavors - homework, marching band and orchestra, a job, a girlfriend. "I find my time is spent in other places," he said. Told about an Edgar Allan Poe book event he could have attended that day, the teen lit up. "For serious?" he asked, rattling off names of Poe works he has enjoyed.

He would have gone, he said. "Oh man, I would've run my mouth."

This sort of interest is what school media specialists love to see.

Sarah Way, who works at Wootton High School in Montgomery County, says that there is a core group of students who use the library a lot and then others who do assigned reading there but don't seem to browse. "I would like to see more carry that book around for the sheer joy of it," she says.

In Arlington, a library book club for high schoolers has seen its ranks swell from 13 or 14 a couple of years ago to 26, said Maria Gentle, a youth services librarian in Arlington County. "I think we have many, many kids who still read for pleasure," she said, recalling that last spring, two teens hit the book club en route to prom, fancy dresses and all.

At Gaithersburg High School, media specialist Catharine Chenoweth sees a declining interest in nonfiction books - with so much of that material available online - while fiction still gets readers. Or, at least, certain kinds of fiction.

"Classics are not read as much as the more contemporary fiction," she said.

Then there are the Olivia Smiths of the world.

The ninth-grader at Richard Montgomery High School has been reading voraciously since she was young. Her two sisters read the same way. When Olivia really likes a book, as with the last of the "Twilight" series, she rereads - maybe 20 times.

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