Teens’ perspectives


Adolescents’ Perspectives on Their Leisure Reading Practices: Evidence from Two Studies

Lee Shumow Hayal Kackar M Cecil Smith

Northern Illinois University

Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New York, NY. April 2008.

Teens’ perspectives Purpose


Despite the explosion of visual media and technologies which have led to research on the “new adolescent literacies” (Alverman, 2004; Luke, 2000), reading will remain crucial for personal, educational, vocational, and social development well into the 21st century; thus it is an essential skill for adolescents (Moore, Bean, Birdyshaw, & Rycik, 1999). Numerous sources, however, document a decline in the time that adolescents spend reading for pleasure-which has led to the assumption that reading is not valued by adolescents. We were, therefore, surprised by the unsolicited and passionate presentations adolescents made about reading activities in videotapes they made for our project pertaining to adolescents’ daily lives (Authors, 2005). The purpose of this paper is to describe adolescents’ reports about their reading in those videos and our follow-up investigation of adolescents’ cognitive engagement, motivation, and affect during leisure reading. Background Literacy, as both a goal of schooling and a characteristic of the individual, can be considered as critical social practice (Alverman, Young, Green, & Wisenbaker, 1999). Literacy as social practice signifies ways that persons interact with and interpret the world and the “word” (texts), engage with and respond to text, contemplate differences (e.g., language, race, gender, sexual orientation), and appropriate and employ texts to position, define and validate individual identities. Our study examines the ways adolescents interpreted, responded to, engaged with, and contemplated reading and how they used it to define themselves in documentary videos they created. We also examined adolescents’ report about their cognitive and affective states as they were reading for leisure and compared those to their reports when engaged with other leisure activities.

Teens’ perspectives


Scholars have recognized the importance of student perspective in studying adolescents (Phelan, Davidson, & Yu, 1998). Several contemporary theories of adolescent development highlight the critical role adolescents’ interpretation of that experience plays in development. Furthermore, student perspective is central in contemporary social constructivist approaches to research and practice (Daniels & Shumow, 2002). Lenters (2006) describes listening to student voice as “an important research paradigm applied to the study of adolescent resistance to reading ….. [that] has yielded rich information regarding adolescent literacy practices…agency, and… identity as components of resistance to reading” (p. #). The present study focuses on the voices of a range of adolescent students about their reading using two unique data sources. Researchers have most often examined adolescents’ reading habits through surveys and interviews. Several studies have, for example, investigated why adolescents read for leisure. An English study (Nestle Family Monitor, 2003) found that approximately 50 % of the 11 – 18 year old adolescents surveyed described reading as relaxing, 50 % as helping understand others, 40% as educational, 33% as fun, 25% as supporting learning, and another 25% as boring. Other surveys have led investigators to describe young adolescents’ attitude toward leisure reading as indifference (McKenna et al., 1995). Large nationally representative data sets indicate that only 20 percent of adolescents read for pleasure each day (Zill, Nord, & Loomis, 1995), although others provide higher estimates (Roberts, Foehr, & Rideout, 2005). Bradshaw & Nichols (2004) found that reading of literature has declined precipitously among older adolescents compared to previous decades. An international comparative case study revealed that U.S. adolescent students rarely mentioned reading in interviews about leisure time (Hofer, 1999), suggesting it had little meaning to them. But what adolescents say about reading in reflective videos and what they actually think about

Teens’ perspectives


and feel while reading might reveal more than quick responses to predetermined, retrospective survey items presented by researchers. Literacy educators have also posited that literacy plays an important, yet not yet fully understood role in adolescent identity formation. Identity development is considered an essential psychosocial task in adolescence (Erikson, 1968; LaVoie, 1994). Achieving an identity entails experimenting with different roles, beliefs, and perspectives, comparing one’s self with others, and identifying with salient characteristics of significant others (e.g., parents, mentors). The role that literacy plays in identity formation for adolescents has garnered considerable attention in literacy education (Alvermann, 2001; Blackburn, 2002; Fecho, 1998; Finders, 1998/1999; Gee & Crawford, 1998; McCarthey & Moje, 2002; Nielsen, 1998; Young, Dillon, & Moje, 2004). Literacy researchers have argued that the ways in which adolescents approach and participate in literacy activities reflects, in large part, their emerging identities. As McCarthey (2001) points out, adolescent learners come to understand themselves in particular ways as a result of their literate engagements. Method Data Sources The present study identified and analyzed instances pertaining to reading from two data sources. Each source gathered adolescents’ subjective experiences using unique methods. Study One: TeenScene. The TeenScene project recruited 19 high school students who each created a 60-minute video documentary about themselves. Educators in four high schools referred students who were (a) representative of adolescents, (b) expressive enough to communicate with others, and (c) trustworthy enough to be loaned a digital video camera. The purpose and rules (e.g., don’t film illegal activities), digital video camera operation, and

Teens’ perspectives


guidelines for capturing images and sound were explained to each participant. Students were asked to address three questions while creating their documentaries: What is important to you?, What do you want others to know about you?, and, What did you do this week? Each adolescent had a digital video camera for one week. The completed videos were content analyzed. As a validity check, educators from the participating schools viewed excerpts and corroborated that these represented typical adolescent viewpoints. Study Two: Sloan. Extant data from the University of Chicago Sloan Center 500 Family Study (Schneider & Waite, 2005), collected from participants who resided in eight middle- and upper middle-class communities that varied geographically and demographically, were used for secondary analysis. Our study focuses on 165 adolescent student participants (59 % female, 80 % White). Data collection included the Experience Sampling Method (ESM; Csikzentmihalyi & Larson, 1984), a week-long data collection process with good validity and reliability (Hektner, Schmidt, & Csikszentmihalyi, 2007; Schneider & Waite, 2005), during which participants wore programmed wristwatches that emitted 8 signals each day. Watches beeped randomly during participants’ waking hours. When signaled, participants recorded their location, activities, companions, and psychological states at that time. Participants’ activity descriptions were coded using detailed schemes. This data set contains 11,721 responses from adolescent students; 3,506 responses pertaining to leisure and media activities. Leisure reading was defined as those instances when adolescents were not in class and reported reading a newspaper, popular culture magazines, news/idea magazine, teen fiction, literature, unspecified fiction, nonfiction or other general “reading.” Students reported 329

Teens’ perspectives


instances of leisure reading. Seven percent of adolescents’ responses occurred while they were reading, which indicated that they spent about 28 minutes per day reading.1 Adolescents read at (a) home (81%), (b) school, not in class (3%), and (c) public places (16 %). They were (a) alone (60%), (b) with friends/peers (6%), (c) with parents (24%), and (d) with others (9 %). In addition, students provided responses to Likert and semantic differential scale items reporting on their cognitive, affective, and motivational states, as well as their views about themselves and their abilities at the time. This paper focuses on those states while reading compared to other leisure or media activities. Results Study One. Approximately 1/3 of the adolescents spontaneously discussed what they were reading or talked about books in their documentaries. They indicated deep interest, involvement, and engagement in reading (quotations from videos will appear in the full paper). Reading appeared to support identity exploration through considerations of “possible selves” (Markus & Nurius, 1986). Adolescents identified with protagonists and explored their personal beliefs while describing their reading in the videos. For example, Emily noted that she reads “a lot,” partly because she lived far away from friends in her exurban home, and wondered openly about her reactions to the works of Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club, Choke) and Ann Rice and what her identification with the characters in those books means about herself. She also discussed Brave New World and how it led her to think more critically about her philosophical beliefs and the perspective of others. Karl also used literature to examine his beliefs. He reported reading The DaVinci Code twice shortly before making his video. Holding the book up to the camera, he said, “Some of it


Figure computed by multiplying 2.918 (percent of reading responses) by 960 (the estimated number of adolescents’ waking minutes a day) and dividing the product by 100.

Teens’ perspectives


really caught my attention and I was pretty interested in it.” In fact, it led him to question the accuracy of what he had been taught as a Roman Catholic: “It brings up questions. I went online and researched it. Most of the gospels were written much later than his (Jesus’) death. Things got taken out and filled in…” He connected these concerns to questions he had just begun considering about the church. Miguel talked about his explorations of different philosophies and counter-cultural perspectives through his reading. He discussed his introduction to books--at a university coffeehouse he frequents—such as A People’s History of the United States. He also mentioned that reading helped him regulate his emotions. Lauren defined herself as a “reader,” and mentioned reading “teen” books. Eunice also saw herself as a reader but took a critical stance toward “teen” books that “tell you what to do” compared to “really good novels” in which there is a “relationship between the book and yourself -- you’re giving it meaning.” These and other high school students indicated that reading was important to them; they were interested, engaged, and enjoyed reading. This led us to wonder about documented declines in time and attitude toward reading and whether adolescents’ motivation to read or not could be at least partly explained by how they feel when reading compared to when involved in competing leisure activities. Study Two. We then examined adolescents’ reports while they were reading to determine how they rated their cognitive, affective and motivational states. Their reports of negative affect (i.e., anger, anxiety, stress) while reading were very low, as were effort and productivity ratings. While reading, adolescents reported moderate levels of concentration, interest, involvement, perceived importance of activity, and wish to be doing the present activity, but higher ratings of

Teens’ perspectives


positive affect (enjoyment, happiness, feeling good about self), and cognitive engagement (control, ability). Adolescents reported higher levels of concentration, interest, and control while reading than when engaging in leisure activities. Alternately, they were less involved in reading, perceived reading as less important, and felt less happy while they were reading than doing other leisure activities (Table 1). Table 1. Reading versus leisure activity responses. Reading M 1.85 2.08 2.32 1.51 1.69 5.15 Leisure SD .85 .79 .82 1.10 .93 1.23 M 1.59 1.83 2.15 1.97 1.91 5.47 SD .61 .64 .62 .75 .63 .92 t -3.192** -3.199** -2.212* 4.817*** 2.435* 2.538*

Concentration Interest Control Involvement Importance Happy

Adolescents also felt less angry and less hardworking while they were reading than engaging in other types of media (e.g. music). They reported higher levels of ability and enjoyment while reading than engaging in other media types (Table 2). (Associations with self/identity measures to be reported in full paper.)

Table 2. Reading vs. using other media. Reading Anger Enjoyment M .34 2.10 SD .52 .71 Other media M .42 1.97 SD .41 .50 t 2.161* -2.063*

Teens’ perspectives Ability Effort 2.42 .68 .81 .85 Implications 2.31 .82 .64 .67

9 -2.559* 2.301*

Our findings shed some light on adolescents’ participation, engagement and views on reading. In contrast to surveys depicting disaffection, we find that high school students view reading as engaging, enjoyable, and beneficial —in part to confront identity formation tasks. Comparisons between their perspectives on reading and other leisure activities suggest that adolescents’ views about reading are complex and nuanced. Surveys asking adolescents if, what, and how much they read are likely not capturing a sufficiently complete view of adolescents’ reading interests and activities. Note that adolescents’ reports about reading activities were unsolicited in these two projects, in contrast to surveys that explicitly query students about their reading activities and other pursuits. Educators should take note of adolescents’ expressed reading interests (which may be at odds with official classroom reading) and their reading of unsanctioned texts (e.g., adult novels). Connections between in-school and out-of-school reading should be made wherever possible.

Teens’ perspectives References


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Teens’ perspectives Markus, H., & Nurius, P. (1986). Possible selves. American Psychologist, 41, 954-969.


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