When parents call to sign up their teenagers for one of her preparatory courses for college-entry exams, local testing guru Martha Geller has one question for them: Is your child a reader?

It’s a crucial question, says Geller, owner of Education for Testing in Blue Ash, because reading is the key to improving vocabulary, writing skills, spelling and mastering complex material – not to mention pulling down higher scores on the college boards.

Dr. Dan Nelson, medical director for the child psychiatry unit at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, takes the benefits of reading one step further. By requiring a highly organized way of thinking about the world, reading actually helps build a better brain, he says. “There’s a lot of brain research to show that people who read more, think more and have better brain development,” he says.

But rather than embracing an activity that seems like a no-brainer, Americans appear to be drifting away from reading in record numbers.

According to a National Endowment for the Arts study released Nov. 19, fewer than half of American adults read a single book in a given year. The average 15-year-old spends just seven minutes a day on voluntary reading, and much of that is while playing video games or watching TV. And as daily reading time has dropped over the last two decades, so has reading proficiency, even among college-educated adults…

Traditionalists say people are reading less. Free thinkers say they’re reading differently.

Book lovers say there’s no substitute for classical literature, bedtime stories and the quiet, reflective process of reading privately. Futurists say only smugness and sentimentality make written text the superior of video images, symbols and online communication.

Some educators say the United States is losing a rich tradition of individual reading. Some historical researchers say such a notion was a myth from the start.

“Text has kind of hijacked what we think learning and thinking are all about,” said Andrea Saveri, research director at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif. “Text-based literacy is only a blip on the horizon, historically. Look at cave paintings, song lines telling stories about physical places, and other oral traditions. Those are literacy, too.”

But NEA Chairman Dana Gioia says traditional print media require “sustained, linear attention” that digital communication does not. In his introduction to the study, Gioia writes, “The cold statistics confirm something that most readers know but have mostly been reluctant to declare as fact – books change lives for the better.” …

Linda Gambrell, an education professor at Clemson University and president of the International Reading Association, says the issue is not where or how often Americans are reading, but what skills they’re using. “What most of us are doing online is scanning-searching,” she says. “It’s superficial reading. We need a balance. We need to not just foster short-term reading but sustained reading as well. It’s through that sort of reading that we’re exposed to the richness of language in our environment.

We’re just not going to be reading for text anymore,” said Saveri, the Institute for the Future researcher. “We’re going to be ‘reading’ for movies, graphics, images, digital stories, symbols,” she says. “You may say young people aren’t reading the classics, but 20 years from now, there might be some classic multimedia pieces with video, with hyperlinks. That’s the new edge of literacy.

Saveri suggests parents blog with their kids, make a YouTube video, jump into the new media – and take books along. “We’ve got to get over our nostalgia,” she says. “Denying your child a rich media world is doing your child a disservice.

Source: Cincinnati Enquirer, OH