Teens reading less…or are they?


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Given the interest in my recent post about school libraries supporting literacy, I thought it might be timely to republish my thoughts on school libraries and teen reading.  This is an article that I originally wrote for SLANZA’s Collected magazine which was published in August 2015 (Issue 16).

When we browse the internet, we are not really ‘surfing’ at all.  We are reading.

Lili Wilkinson

In July, following a Radio New Zealand news report titled “Teens reading less, say school librarians” (Gerritsen, 2015), there developed an interesting discussion on the New Zealand School Libraries email list (schoollib listserv).  A lot of the comments contributed to the discussion about young people’s reading habits were based on anecdotal evidence, library borrowing statistics, and gut feelings.  As information professionals perhaps a deeper look into the matter is required, in order to ascertain whether teenagers are in fact reading less, whether this is a problem and, if it is, what can be done to remedy it.

Are teenagers reading less?

There has been little research done on young people’s reading habits and preferences within New Zealand, with most local studies focusing on reading achievement.  However, recent research carried out in the United States and Australia seem to confirm the gut feeling of educators – that teenagers are reading less.  A 2014 report by Common Sense Media (Rideout, 2014) that reviewed a number of studies and databases found there was a sharp decline between the percentage of 9-year-olds and 17-year-olds that “read for fun” every day.  They also reported a sharp increase in the number of 17-year-olds between 1984 and today who say they “never” or “hardly ever” read (Rideout, 2014).

A closer look at the methodology of most of these studies, however, reveals a very narrow definition of the term “reading”.  “Reading” in these circumstances seemed to be identified as reading self-selected books in one’s own time.  Aronson (2014) contends that a young person’s complete reading life needs to be understood; it should encompass all forms of reading, include in-school reading, and be “platform agnostic”.  Reading in this wider context includes that done on social media sites, such as Facebook and Reddit; fan-fiction; online news and magazine articles; TradeMe auctions; or gaming cheat sites.

In these studies, “pleasure reading” is also a troublesome concept.  Aronson (2014) argues that ‘for most adult professionals it’s often impossible to draw a clear line between work and leisure reading’ (para. 6).  The same could be said for young people.  They may chose to follow up in their own time on interesting content covered in the classroom, or research done for class assignments may take meandering side roads as new facts or characters are discovered.  Common Sense Media’s Seeta Pai (2014a) agrees with Aronson on this and suggests ‘engagement is perhaps a better yardstick than pleasure’ (para. 6).  This distinction also removes the value judgment placed on “work” or “fun” reading.

Drawing the conclusion that teens are reading less because of declining borrowing statistics in the school library is equally problematic.  There are a variety of reasons that may lead to lower borrowing numbers that do not mean the students are no longer reading.  These include: students accessing reading material from other places; reading library material that is not allowed to be issued; reading library material but not borrowing it; and reading e-books that are privately owned, borrowed from elsewhere, or have been illegally downloaded.  Using borrowing statistics as a measure of reading also returns “reading” to that narrowly defined activity that can only be done with traditional print materials or with materials that can be checked in and out.

Until more research has been done into the complete reading life of young people it is difficult to say whether or not teens are reading less.  However, it is probably safe to say that teenagers are reading less traditional print materials and do not identify the activities they participate in online as related to “reading”.

Is this a problem?

There are numerous studies that present evidence of the correlation between pleasure reading and a wide range of benefits.  Manuel and Carter (2015), in their research into Australian teenagers’ reading practices and preferences, collated studies that show reading for pleasure matters for a number of reasons.  It matters because it supports broader literacy development and learning; enables young people to develop their own, better-informed perspective on life; is a safe, inexpensive, pleasurable way to spend time; allows young readers to understand and empathise with the lives of those in different situations, times and cultures; and improves educational outcomes and employment prospects (Manuel & Carter, 2015).  Reading for pleasure also matters because it has been shown to be more important to children’s cognitive development and educational success than their parents’ level of education or socio-economic status (Manuel & Carter, 2015).

However, Manuel and Carter (2015) could not find any Australian research comparing children’s leisure reading across different formats or media.  This leads one to the conclusion that the “reading for pleasure” referred to in their article refers back to that narrow definition discussed earlier.  If this is the case, then the fact that teenagers are reading less traditional print materials is a problem.  If the benefits found to be evident in these studies are only related to this type of reading our young people are not getting them.

Further to this, it is a big problem, as Miriam Tuohy (2015) pointed out during the listserv discussion, if young people do not think of themselves as readers.  If teenagers view reading as an activity solely done with traditional print materials, and that is not an activity they participate in or enjoy, they are potentially closing themselves off to the benefits associated with being a reader.  As Aronson (2014) states,

we need to…not just honor all reading…but to keep offering new doors, new opportunities, and new options to teenagers…The idea is to keep opening doors, so occasional readers recognize that there is something of interest – something appealing, stimulating, or unexpected – waiting for them when they do take time to read. (para. 10)

What can we do about it?

For young people there are a variety of barriers to leisure time reading.  Reader reluctance can generally be categorised in to five main reasons (Merga, 2014):

  • Time availability: for example, crowded curriculum, lack of focus on “pleasure reading” at high school, sporting and other extra-curricular commitments, sibling care, homework, after school employment;
  • Preference: for example, low appeal, other pursuits have a higher priority;
  • Skill deficit: for example, not a competent reader, low confidence, second language learner, slow reader, low parental literacy, limited exposure to reading;
  • Access and choice: for example, difficulty in locating engaging books, paucity of books or dearth in quality, inability to employ choosing strategies, need access to books that are relevant and of interest;
  • Physical and cognitive factors: for example, concentration issues, visual language processing difficulties, optical issues, tired or hungry, cognitive impediments, inability to sit still.

It should be noted that while students may offer one barrier for their reluctance to read (‘I don’t like reading’), this attitude will often involve a number of reasons (‘I’m not very good at it and I can’t find a book I like and I’d rather be doing something else’).

School librarians will be able to look at this list of barriers and see which ones they can have an impact on.  However, they will not be able to mitigate all the factors and will need help from the wider school community to affect real change.  Parents have perhaps the greatest impact on their teens and it is never too late for them to encourage reading habits.  Parents can help by:

  • modelling reading themselves;
  • providing access to reading material at home;
  • setting aside time for teens to read each day;
  • acknowledging the many and varied forms of reading (Pai, 2014b).

Manuel and Carter (2015) offer classroom teachers a range of actions to engage teenage readers, some suggested by students themselves.  Strategies teachers can adopt include:

  • providing time for students to discuss books with each other and become part of a reading community;
  • allowing more student choice in book selection;
  • more judicious selection of compulsory texts;
  • teachers reading aloud;
  • allowing time for silent reading of self-selected material.

School librarians need to lead the charge in engaging young people in reading – in all its forms.  They should advocate for a wider definition of the term “reading” and what is considered acceptable reading material in their schools.  They need to reassess the cultures of their libraries and how they fit with their 21st century learners (Bichan, 2015).  They should ‘look at themselves and their services through the eyes of young people who have a preconceived idea of what a library is’ (Blake, Hale & Sherriff, 2011, p.210).  They need to enjoy working with young people and be passionate about libraries.  And perhaps most importantly of all, rather than shake their heads and question why teenagers are not reading, school librarians need to question themselves.  A good place to start is with asking what barriers am I, my attitudes or my library policies creating that disengage young readers?



Aronson, M. (2014, May 22). Are Teenagers Reading Less? | Consider the Source. Retrieved 8 August 2015, from http://www.slj.com/2014/05/opinion/consider-the-source/are-teenagers-reading-less-consider-the-source/

Bichan, G. (2015, July 28). Re: Teens reading less – lets attack this radically and positively [Electronic mailing list message]. Retrieved from http://lists.canterbury.ac.nz/mailman/private/schoollib/2015-July/023225.html

Blake, A., Hale, J., & Sherriff, E. (2011). The hard-to-reach reader in the 21st century. In J. Court (Ed.), Read to Succeed: Strategies to Engage Children and Young People in Reading for Pleasure (pp. 201–224). London: Amer Library Assn.

Gerritsen, J. (2015, July 28). Teens reading less, say school librarians [Website]. (Radio New Zealand). Retrieved from http://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/279843/teens-reading-less,-say-school-librarians

Manuel, J., & Carter, D. (2015). Current and historical perspectives on Australian teenagers’ reading practices and preferences. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 38(2), 115–128.

Merga, M. K. (2014). Western Australian adolescents’ reasons for infrequent engagement in recreational book reading. Literacy Learning: The Middle Years, 22(2), 60–66.

Pai, S. (2014a, June 5). Where, What, How, and Why Teens Do and Don’t Read | Consider the Source. Retrieved 8 August 2015, from http://www.slj.com/2014/06/opinion/consider-the-source/where-what-how-and-why-teens-do-and-dont-read-consider-the-source/

Pai, S. (2014b, July 11). 4 Surprising Findings About Kids’ and Teens’ Reading, Plus What You Can Do to Help Kids Read More. Retrieved 8 August 2015, from https://www.commonsensemedia.org/blog/4-surprising-findings-about-kids-and-teens-reading-plus-what-you-can-do-to-help-kids-read-more

Rideout, V. (2014). Children, Teens, and Reading: A Common Sense Media research brief. San Francisco: Common Sense Media. Retrieved from https://www.commonsensemedia.org/research/children-teens-and-reading

Tuohy, M. (2015, July 28). Re: Teens reading less – lets attack this radically and positively [Electronic mailing list message]. Retrieved from http://lists.canterbury.ac.nz/mailman/private/schoollib/2015-July/023251.html

Wilkinson, L. (2011). Creative reading and insideadog.com.au. In J. Court (Ed.), Read to Succeed: Strategies to Engage Children and Young People in Reading for Pleasure (pp. 201–224). London: Amer Library Assn.


One thought on “Teens reading less…or are they?

  1. This is a very thought out article that explains the hardships that teenagers go through when adapting a reading habit. I have a similar campaign that I started a week back which surrounds the same dilemma of the reading culture that exist in a technological era. Personally, I find it important to educate and create awareness among them to let them understand the impact reading habit can have in their lives.
    If you are interested in checking my campaign out here is the link.


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