One of the things often overlooked in discussions of academic achievement is the importance of leisure reading, not only the quality of it but the volume of it. There are, in fact, solid correlations between how much reading teens do on their own and how well they perform in school. Added to that, according to ACT, one of the major reasons that college students fare poorly in their first year is that they are incapable of reading “complex texts.” (I argue here that their digital leisure habits only compound the difficulty.)
This is why the results of the ongoing American Time Use Survey are so dismaying. This year’s results came out last week, with leisure activities appearing in Table 11.
One of the activities charted is “Reading” (along with exercising, socializing, television, “relaxing,” and computers). Once again, daily minutes of reading time comes up in the single digits for 15- to 19-year-olds. Overall, they spent .12 hours on weekdays and .10 hours on weekend days in reading. (Obviously, respondents don’t count reading text messages and surfing the Web as reading time, nor should they.) For the average teenager, reading simply isn’t a significant habit in their lives.
College teachers, then, can’t expect much when they assign homework. Long novels are out, and so are dense texts that require multiple readings. The readings on the syllabus strike the students as an alien activity.
When we look at the results broken down by race, more concerns arise. Table 11 doesn’t separate racial groups into age groups, but the racial groups in general show marked differences that likely are reproduced for the teen category alone. Whites come in at .31 and .37 hours on weekdays and weekend days, respectively. Blacks come in at half that figure, .17 and .18, even though blacks have more leisure time than whites (5.61 hours to 5.14 hours per day). Hispanics have less leisure time (4.89 hours) and pile up even less leisure reading (.15 and .11 hours on weekdays and weekend days).
There is one other wide difference that is reflected in college achievement. Teenage females have much less leisure time than do males (4.82 to 5.57 hours per day), but they log more minutes of leisure reading (.33 to .24 weekday hours, .38 to .29 weekend day hours).
These numbers confirm the rule that the more young people read on their own, voluntarily, the better they do in school. Put it this way: If reading has a personal import, then the academic side of reading will go more smoothly. If reading doesn’t have any personal import, then academics will appear increasingly meaningless whenever the coursework strays outside career ambitions.