What was the title of the last book you read? I make this inquiry any time I meet someone new. With older folks, born before 1984, it usually leads to a conversation about literature. When I pose the same question to younger people, the most common response is, “I don’t read.” As a writer, this deeply saddens me. As an American, it downright scares me. Our children don’t read. That’s a real problem.
Reading is a primary skill taught to children as early as pre-school and K1, but studies show that a declining number of our youth actually read by choice. A study conducted by Common Sense Media back in 2014, published by Time Magazine, shows that the number of seventeen year olds who “never” or “almost never” read for pleasure has tripled since 1984 – 27% non-readers, up from 9%.
The numbers get worse from there. In 1999, parents read to young children (2-7 years old) for typically 45 minutes a day. That average today is down to 30 minutes a day, a 33% drop off. This is no doubt a contributing factor to the paltry 19% of seventeen year olds reading for fun on a daily basis. Broken down, that means only one in five of our children are actually reading for the sake of reading.
Demographics of Reading – Print Books, eBooks, and Audio Books
Do college graduates read more than high school students? The chart above, provided by Pew Research Center, shows that they do. Only 45% of those surveyed with less than a high school diploma for education have read a book in the past twelve months. Ethnicity and income seem to be factors also, with Hispanics (58%) and lower income workers (65%) showing significantly lower reading numbers than whites (76%) and those who make over $75,000 a year (81%).
One other point of note with these statistics is the number of eBook readers in the groups where folks are spending the most time indulging their literary desires. Audio books (which really aren’t books) show some variations, but the differences are not as pronounced.
How do we interpret this? One of the most common scapegoats for the decline of reading is the rise of video games, but wouldn’t that affect higher income individuals more? Video game systems cost several hundred dollars; print books are free. Today you can buy a Nook Book for $9.99, but that wasn’t the case when this sample group was growing up. Getting an eBook reader for less than $50 meant that you were buying used (or stolen).
How to Instill a Love of Reading
Children don’t read because they don’t like to read. That’s the real problem. I grew up with a deep love of the written word. I chose the image at the top of this article because it reminds me of myself as a child, hiding under the sheets with a flashlight so I could finish that last chapter, the one where the hero was about to save the world and win the girl. My imagination brought these scenes to life for me.
This is the point in the discussion where I most often hear technology blamed for the decline in reading. I disagree. Technology can be utilized to stimulate imagination. Parents who don’t have much time in their day can use that technology to help instill a love of reading in their children. For a list of helpful tools you won’t find in the toy store, check out Jamie Martin’s latest article titled “5 Tech Tools that Help Improve Reading Comprehension“. Teach your kids to comprehend and you’ll start to see the pages turn.
Once your child is able to better understand what he or she is reading, the next step is to get them excited about the story. This is an area where teachers often fall short. That list of “required reading” creates an aversion to reading in a lot of young people. Some (not all) of the books on those lists are of very little interest to them. If a child is pressured to eat food he doesn’t like, he won’t eat it when he’s grown. Children who are forced to read what they dislike will not mature to be avid readers as adults. As a parent, don’t be afraid to ask your children what their interests are, then buy them books on those subjects.
Children Emulate what they Observe
My grandchildren, at some point in their development, have all played the “imitation game”. If you have kids, you’re familiar with this. The child follows you around and copies everything you do, even says everything you say. For some adults, it’s annoying. I love it. That emulation tells me in a clear voice that this child wants to be just like me. That type of adoration comes with a price; I need to lead by example.
This brings me to my next question for you, which is actually the same as the first question I asked today, “What was the title of the last book you read?” I’ll even add, “Did you read any of it while your child was in the room?” Setting a positive example is the single most important thing we can do for our children. If they’re not learning from us, they’re learning from strangers. Do you want to take that chance?
Reading is a Free Path to Higher Education
I’ve been a professional writer for thirty years. In that time, I’ve been published multiple times, achieved success as an entrepreneur, and brought a start-up company from zero to $2 million a year in revenue. Prior to all that, I dropped out of high school in the ninth grade and lived on the streets of Boston for nearly a year before embarking on a path to turn my life around, with basically no formal education.
How did I accomplish all this? When I needed to know something, I did research on it. In other words, I read. This process has given me the ability to move up in each of the companies I have worked for and eventually earn my degree. Ironically, it’s not the education that has been the key to my success; it’s the knowledge I have gained through reading. That information cost me nothing to obtain.
Don’t get me wrong. I am a strong advocate for continuing education, but some children will not get that opportunity. In one of my charity endeavors, we work with a school where 70% of the children live under the poverty line. Without either great grades or an athletic scholarship, most of those kids won’t go to college. How will they succeed? If they know how to read, comprehend, and advocate for themselves, they’ll do okay. It’s our responsibility as adults to make sure they get that chance.
Content Marketing’s Contribution to Literacy
As a content writer, I believe that it should be our commitment as an industry to provide quality, readable content that can improve the literacy of adults and children. I don’t communicate in 140 character messages. In fact, you’ll rarely see an article on my site that is under 1500 words. You also won’t see blatant promotion or ads that clog up the page. In my mind, what I write should be read, not snapchatted.
There’s been a lot of debate recently about the effectiveness of content marketing. Are folks really reading the content? Do blog posts and articles lead to conversions and customers? In many cases, even with advanced analytics, the path from first contact to closed sale is difficult to track, especially if that first contact was a piece of content. For that reason alone, almost everything you hear on the topic is opinion, not data. Content marketing works if visitors are reading what you write.
If you read this entire article, you know me much better now than you did before. That’s the point of content marketing – giving the reader a better understanding of the writer or the company I’m writing for. From there, it’s up to you whether you want to do business with me or not. Either way, I’m grateful that you’re reading. My hope is that you’ll teach your children to do the same.