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This Just in: Pleasure Reading Makes a World of Difference

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Breaking news: Reading makes you smarter, more successful, and more active in society. Not reading has the opposite effect.

A new report, To Read or Not to Read, by the National Endowment for the Arts, sounds the alarm:

Although there has been measurable progress in recent years in reading ability at the elementary school level, all progress appears to halt as children enter their teenage years... Most alarming, both reading ability and the habit of regular reading have greatly declined among college graduates...the declines have demonstrable social, economic, cultural, and civic implications.

Everyone, on any point of the political spectrum, should care about this.

Conservatives: Not reading jeopardizes America's dominance in the global marketplace!

Liberals: We can't afford to get dumber and retreat from the great promises of our participatory democracy!

To Read or Not to Read goes on:

As Americans, especially younger Americans, read less, they read less well. Because they read less well, they have lower levels of academic achievement. (The shameful fact that one-third of American teenagers drop out of school is deeply connected to declining literacy and reading comprehension.) With lower levels of reading and writing ability, people do less well in the job market. Poor reading skills correlate heavily with lack of employment, lower wages, and fewer opportunities for advancement. Significantly worse reading skills are found among prisoners than in the general adult population. And deficient readers are less likely to become active in civic and cultural life, most notably in volunteerism and voting.

The report goes on to document drops in pleasure reading across almost every American demographic.

As a teacher, I see a night-and-day difference in the abilities between students who read beyond class requirements and those who don't pick up a book when not forced. Getting kids engaged in reading at an early age and then sustaining that interest should be a priority for policy makers. Their attitude toward teachers and students ought to be: "How can we help you make reading come alive to kids?"

Instead, education laws in America, most prominently No Child Left Behind, have turned away from this vital process and have put focus on constantly testing proficiency. This obsession has not paid off with results. (Test-making corporations like McGraw-Hill, however, have no complaints.) Politicians haven't helped by relentlessly and confusingly declaring victory every time test scores are released.

With the plateau and decline of scores in middle- and high school, it is clear that whatever testing gains were made in elementary school are illusory. Kids--and adults in America--are turning away from reading. As NEA chairman Dana Gioia explained, "This functional approach to reading is not adequate to instill a lifelong love of the subject."

This should be the new modus operandi of lawmakers and education power-brokers in America: instilling a lifelong love of reading and learning. Teachers are trying, wherever possible, to subvert the mechanistic mandates handed down to them and to nurture a passion for reading. Clearly, they need some help.

Dan Brown is a teacher and the author of the memoir, "The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle."

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