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Here’s a bit of data that confirms what we already suspect. According to a 2012 survey by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), fewer than 20 percent of 17-year-old high school students (19 percent to be exact) say that they read for fun on their own time almost every day. That is the lowest percentage since NAEP began asking that question to U.S. elementary, middle and high school students. Back in 1984, more than 30 percent of 17 year olds said they read for fun every day.

Decline in reading

For charts and tables, see pages 24 through 27 in the NAEP 2012 Trends in Academic Progress Report, released on June 27, 2013.

The same downward trend is true for 13 year olds with just 27 percent reading on their own these days, compared with 35 percent back in 1984. Thank the Lord for Harry Potter and JK Rowling’s grip on nine year olds. Fifty three percent of nine year olds said they read for fun in 2012, no drop at all since 1984.

The decline in reading matters. According to NAEP, the kids with the highest test scores in reading also report reading the most. For example, 17 year olds who say they read for fun almost every day scored 11 percent higher, on average, than 17 year olds who admit that they don’t read for fun. Among nine year olds, those who say they read for fun almost every day scored almost 9 percent higher than those who admit that they don’t read for fun.

Decline in reading

The NAEP report also breaks this reading data down by race. At age 13 and 17, higher percentages of whites than blacks or Hispanics report that they read for fun almost every day. For example, 22 percent of white students report that they read daily, compared with 17 percent of black students and 15 percent of Hispanic students.

But nine year olds are a different matter. Hispanic nine year olds are as voracious readers as white nine year olds (52 percent and 53 percent say they read every day for fun, respectively).

NAEP doesn’t explain the decline in reading among teens. It seems obvious to jump to the conclusion that teens are playing more games and texting on their iPhones than reading books. I certainly see that on the New York City subway. But aren’t nine year olds playing video games too? Why hasn’t their reading suffered?

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