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American reading habits survey: Was it misinterpreted?



The Pew Research Center released a new study on American reading habits reading.  A number of news outlets reported  that it says most young Americans (ages 16-29) are reading a lot and using public libraries. But cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham says that these reports have been misleading. He explains why in this post, which appeared on his Science and Education blog. Willingham is a professor and director of graduate studies in psychology at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?” His newly published book is “When Can You Trust The Experts? How to tell good science from bad in education.


By Daniel Willingham

A new survey of American reading habits was published last week. Much of the news coverage led with the somewhat surprising finding that young people (age 16-29), supposedly enamored of gaming and video content, reported that they read and use libraries. In fact, that they do so more than older people.

New York Times blog: Young people frequent libraries, study says.
Christian Science Monitor: Millenials: A rising generation of book lovers.
NPR (Boston): Facebook generation is reading strong.

Sexy stuff, but I think it’s misleading.

One message is that young people are reading “a lot.” What constitutes “a lot” is a judgement call, obviously, but in this study the data showed that 83% of 18-29 year-olds had a read a book sometime in the previous year. That strikes me as a low bar to be considered “a reader.”

Other data show that Americans spend much more time watching television each day than they do reading. This chart is from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Those data include Americans of all ages. If we look at younger Americans, the picture looks more or less the same: not a lot of reading. The figure below shows leisure time activities, separated by sex.

The second way in which the coverage of the Pew study was deceptive lay in the reported age difference. Yes, young people were more likely than older people to report having read a book in the past year, but that difference was very likely due to the fact that many of them were students, doing required reading.

The study did report these data separately, shown below.

By the sometime-in-the-last year measure, older and younger Americans are about the same, except insofar as they are required to read for work or school.

Likewise, the increased use of libraries by young respondents is likely mediated by their need to use libraries for schoolwork.

There have been many reports of American reading habits in the last 50 years, and especially in the last 20. The overall picture is that reading dropped when television became widely available, and hasn’t changed much since then.



Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

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