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"Reading At Risk:" Cause for Alarm?

by Peter Cowan - February 14, 2005

Using the New Literacy Studies – current, research-based perspectives on literacy – this article provocatively undermines the key assumptions of Reading At Risk. It reveals how Reading At Risk visually and textually constructs this latest literacy crisis, how this literacy crisis is less about reading literature than about an assertion of cultural power, and how Reading At Risk argues that American youth must shed their own literacy practices and assimilate to elitist practices of literary reading. It exposes Reading At Risk as what is likely to be an opening salvo in a new push for an elitist educational reform agenda that will disserve America’s youth.

This summer I read “Fewer Noses Stuck in Books in America Survey Finds” in the New York Times, (Weber, 2004), about the National Endowment for the Arts’ report Reading at Risk like it was one of those magazine quizzes that affirms your personality’s gifts and uncovers its defects. As a former English teacher, I assumed Reading at Risk would confirm that I am an active, engaged reader. When I discovered that it counted reading only “novels, short stories, plays, or poetry in [one’s] leisure time (not for work or school)” (National Endowment for the Arts, 2004a, p. ix), and when I reflected that I only read a couple of novels a year on vacation, I discovered a personal defect: that I’m a “light book reader” and, it seems, part of a growing problem.

The nation is still caught in a tide of indifference when it comes to literature. That is the sobering profile of a new survey to be released today by the National Endowment for the Arts, which describes a precipitous downward trend in book consumption by Americans and a particular decline in the reading of fiction, poetry and drama. (Weber, 2004, p. B1).

Is this cause for alarm? According to some it is. Two days later, the author of a book on depression published “The Closing of the American Book,” an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, that linked this apparent decline in reading with particular national crises: “the crisis in reading is a crisis in national health,” “the crisis in reading is a crisis in national politics,” and “the decline of reading is the crisis in national education” (Solomon, 2004, p. A29). But the literacy researcher part of me began to ask: What’s going on here? Is there real cause for alarm?

Reading the report, I discovered that this alarmist tone begins with its Preface, written by the Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), Dana Gioia, and ripples out through media reports of it. Gioia writes:

Reading at Risk is not a report that the National Endowment for the Arts is happy to issue. This comprehensive survey of American literary reading presents a detailed but bleak assessment of the decline of reading’s role in the nation’s culture. . . More than reading is at stake. As this report unambiguously demonstrates, readers play a more active and involved role in their communities. The decline in reading, therefore, parallels a larger retreat from participation in civic and cultural life. The long-term implications of this study not only affect literature but all the arts – as well as social activities such as volunteerism, philanthropy, and even political engagement. (National Endowment for the Arts, 2004a, p. vii).

This alarm is rooted in a traditional conception of literacy (literacy as practices of reading and writing). We are intended to interpret the findings of Reading at Risk through the lens of this traditional understanding: that reading is a set of discrete skills easily mastered in school; and that when practiced regularly they enhance cognition, improve job prospects, make better citizens, and develop the characters of individual readers. In other words, the simple act of regularly reading literature builds good citizens because in this survey the frequency of reading literature correlates with being culturally active and civically-minded. From the traditional perspective a decline in reading literature by individuals foretells declines in the cultural life and civic health of society.

But there is a research-based conception of literacy that more accurately answers what’s going on here? More than 20 years ago, anthropologists interested in literacy began to observe and report what people actually did with literacy in diverse situations. They revealed that there are multiple, diverse literacies – different ways of reading and writing – practiced in social interactions that are shaped and determined by the cultural context. In other words, how one reads and writes, what kinds of texts one interacts with, and what beliefs one has about those literacy practices come from the people and interactions in which one learned to do them. The effects of literacy that we assume come from reading itself, (enhancing cognition and job prospects, building character and better citizens), are really a function of how our mastery of practices of literacy like literary reading involves us in important social networks. Our membership in these social networks, signaled by our acquisition of the shared attitudes and behaviors embedded in practicing literary reading, is what affords us access to higher education and job opportunities (Street, 2003). In a country as diverse as the United States, there are a multiplicity of culturally specific ways of reading and writing, of taking meaning from one’s environment and making meaning in culturally valued ways, and individuals are socialized into the literacy practices, conceptions and beliefs of their families and communities. This research-based conception of literacy turned attention away from a narrow focus on individuals (and away from disproved assumptions about literacy’s effects on them), toward a focus on social and cultural ways of exchanging meaning among people of the same cultural group and how they are bound up in social, cultural, and political practices and ideologies (Bloome, Carter, Christian, Otto, and Shuart-Faris, 2005, pp. xv-xxii). Using this research-based conception of literacy, what has come to be called the New Literacy Studies, as a prism to refract the various findings of Reading At Risk, one gets a more accurate, less alarmist answer to the question, what’s going on here?

What Reading At Risk does is norm the literary reading practices of “frequent” readers (people who read 12 or more literary books per year). Frequent readers are most likely to be either white, college-educated women who live in the suburbs and have high incomes whether or not they are in the work force, or white, college-educated people with high incomes who are retired (National Endowment for the Arts, 2004a, pp. 9-20). Reading At Risk finds that frequent readers have greater participation in civic and cultural events like visiting art galleries, attending performing arts and sports events, and volunteering. The study then reasons that everyone who is not a “frequent reader,” (in particular Hispanic women and men, African American men, and young people), is deficient in his or her reading practices, and these deficits portend dire consequences for our culture. From the perspective of the New Literacy Studies, Reading At Risk can be seen as elevating the literacy practices of predominately white, upper-middle class people with the financial resources to afford leisure time to read literature, attend cultural events and volunteer their time as the norm to which we should all aspire.

Understand that I am not saying that reading literature does not benefit individuals. My professional career is testament to the influence literary reading and writing, the magic and power of language and literature to open worlds and illuminate ideas, has had on my life. What I am arguing, however, is that reading literature is not the only way to experience the magic of worlds opening or the power of new ideas suddenly illuminated. Nor is literary reading the only means to becoming actively, thoughtfully, and critically engaged in national politics and culture and thus of developing the kind of character that makes good citizens.

I will discuss two other literacies, one mentioned in Reading At Risk, and the other from my own teaching experience. First, Reading At Risk tells us that

African Americans are most likely to listen to poetry readings. This may be due, in part, to the popularity of dub and slam poetry readings in the U.S. (Dub poetry is an oral presentation of poetic words usually combined with music, (often drumming)). . . [T]here is decidedly younger audience listening to poetry readings [sic]” (National Endowment for the Arts, 2004a, p. 18).

Underlying this finding is a rich and varied oral tradition in African American communities in the U.S. African American youth are socialized into these oral traditions, these culturally valued ways of making meaning, developing critical cultural consciousness, exercising agency, and becoming engaged and aware students and citizens (Fisher, 2003; Kirkland, 2002; Morrell and Duncan-Andrade, 2004; Sutton, 2004).

Second, when I was a new teacher working with Hispanic middle school students I was concerned about some of my students who drew lowrider art (drawings featuring subcultural, religious, ethnic icons from their community) while I was trying to teach them literary skills. After developing a curiosity about connections between literacy and identity, and after learning about the iconography of lowrider art, I learned that my students were socialized into and practicing what Cowan (2005) calls “Latino visual discourse” – a culturally distinctive system of taking meaning from one’s visual environment and making meaning in visual texts that can be analyzed for consistent cultural meanings (Cowan, 1999; 2004).

So to return to the question, is there cause for alarm? The answer is it depends. If you lean toward elitism, believe that the U.S. has a core culture, that access to that core culture is through literary reading, and that engaging with that core culture develops good citizens, then Reading At Risk may alarm you. If you lean toward populism, believe that the U.S. has always been pluralistic, that in a multicultural society there are numerous, culturally valued ways of taking and making meaning, developing consciousness and being good citizens, and that core culture is one group’s culture that dominates and insists on assimilation to its values, then Reading At Risk may not be alarming, because it documents a slight decline in literary reading but not in literacy. However, the consequence of Reading At Risk defining reading so narrowly and ignoring these other beneficial literacy practices alarms me in ways that the NEA didn’t intend. I will illustrate my alarm by analyzing the cover photograph from the Reading At Risk brochure (National Endowment for the Arts, 2004b) using a theory of visual literacy – a benefit of the nudge my Hispanic students gave me to look beyond my own previously narrow conception of literacy.


Analyzing the photograph from the cover of the Reading At Risk brochure, it is possible to apprehend how its visual message foreshadows the Executive Summary that follows. We are accustomed to taking pictures in at a glance and assuming that they merely reflect reality and illustrate what the written text will state and elaborate. In Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design, (1996), Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen argue that in actual communication, the images that have become salient features of newspapers, magazines, public relations materials, advertisements, web pages, text books, etc., are visual means of communication and can be analyzed for cultural meanings. Visual meanings in pictures and written meanings in texts interact, affect each other, and together form integrated texts that reflect the interests of the individuals and institutions that create and circulate them. Using Kress and van Leeuwen’s methods of pictorial analysis derived from their study of Western visual design, I will discuss, first, the elements of the photograph, and second, the principles of composition to uncover the meaning that is communicated visually.

The photograph positions the viewer as an invisible onlooker looking down the isle formed by the reading tables and chairs. The library is empty of people except for the boy in the foreground reading at the first table on the right. Since the boy’s back is turned to the viewer, both he and the library are offered as items of information, as objects for contemplation. The boy’s light shirt and the bright reflection behind him on the floor draw the eye. The isle, seen in perspective, is a vector that leads the eye from the boy and the spot behind him down the room to the dark doorway, to the parted curtains, to the brightly lit arch above, and finally to the illuminated balcony that circles the library above the tables and chairs.

In terms of composition, this photograph is organized along two axes, a horizontal and vertical, and each confers different values to the visual information being presented. The horizontal axis is the balcony that divides the photograph into top and bottom. The vertical axis is the isle/vector that divides the photo (the bottom in particular) into left and right. In the grammar of Western visual design, the left side represents information that the viewer is assumed to know already, it is the given, familiar, agreed upon point of departure for the message. Beginning with the bottom left, one sees that the tables are empty. The given is that libraries are empty, that people are not reading. The right side, where the boy sits, presents the new, something not yet known or not yet agreed upon, but something to which the viewer must pay special attention. The new is that young people offer new hope for reading. The left and right parts of the bottom of the photo convey the message that given that many people are not reading, there might be hope for young people. In the grammar of Western visual design, the bottom tends to show what is, the real, and the top tends to show what might be, the ideal. In this photo what is is the emptiness, the absence of people reading; what might be is the hope of literary enlightenment, the illuminated balcony above.

Composition not only determines how the positioning of elements conveys different information values, it also involves different degrees of salience to its elements. Salience can create a hierarchy of importance through light and dark. The boy’s white shirt, the bright reflection on the floor behind him and the bright reflection on the archway are the salient elements leading our attention first to the boy then up to the balcony. Illumination is also used in the left/right, bottom/top composition. The left side is uniformly lit, top and bottom. On the bottom right side the book alcoves plunge into darkness, symbolically suggesting that the past and present face a dark, uncertain future if the decline in readers continues. The top right side is more brightly illuminated than the left, suggesting that if more youth follow the path of literary enlightenment then the future is bright. These elements of composition are arranged to produce the meaning that literary reading is in decline creating a potentially dark and uncertain future. One bright hope is youth who through reading literature can follow the path to literary and cultural enlightenment. This visual meaning interacts with, affects, and combines with the Preface and Executive Summary to construct an integrated meaning about the danger we face from this decline in literary reading.

A couple of elements not controlled by lighting and arrangement evoke my alarm about Reading At Risk. First, the library, traditional and handsome, is an august, physical space. The boy dressed in sports shoes, jeans, T-shirt, appears out of place and indeed his body is too small for the furniture: the chair is too big, the table is too high, the book is too big for him to hold and is propped up on the table so he can read it. This book that he is reading appears to be from the distant past when texts were printed with ornate typefaces and embellished with visual designs. The underlying message of these visual elements seems to be that youth must remove themselves from their social worlds and fit themselves to the demands of literary reading to achieve the bright future promised by the acquisition of enlightened literary knowledge. Let me be clear that I am not arguing against the ends, the desirability of encouraging more young people to read literature.  I am, however, arguing about the means, how Reading At Risk and our traditional understanding of literacy ignores other literacies in the interest of promoting only one, narrow definition of literacy, and how this disserves many of our youth.  I am alarmed by the visual and written message of Reading At Risk that to be considered culturally enlightened and civically engaged all of America’s youth must assimilate the values, conventions, and norms of literary reading as practiced mostly by white, upper-middle class people with financial resources and leisure time. If the producers of Reading At Risk were interested in communicating a visual message about the benefits of reading literature, the power of literary reading to open worlds for children, then the cover illustration would be more like the opening montage of Reading Rainbow, the reading show for children on public television.

I hope that now one can see Reading At Risk as not about reading as much as it is about power. It reveals the power of groups -- along with business interests like the Association of American Publishers (which is funding the distribution of Reading At Risk brochures), to privilege their practices of literacy, and to use institutions like the NEA to maintain their power. They manage this by declaring as a crisis the fact that not everyone in the U.S. is reading the way they value and by projecting an uncertain future unless we act to get youth to assimilate their values of reading literature.

So, what’s going on here? I will end with an anecdote that reinforces this point about literacy and cultural power. I actually read Reading At Risk on a flight to visit my parents in South Carolina. My parents retired and moved across the country to a new development in the Sea Islands region. Living in their development, among people like them -- upper-middle class retirees, my parents have made new friends with whom they discuss and share books, attend intellectual and cultural events at the local university, and some of whom volunteer at the local elementary school. Their new community is in the heart of a much older Gullah community. When this part of South Carolina was captured by the Union Army at the beginning of the Civil War, the plantation owners fled, and former slaves were able to buy the land for back taxes.


On the weekend that I was visiting, there was an annual celebration of Gullah culture at the site of the first school for freed slaves in the U.S., less than a mile from my parents’ home. The event was attended by a few thousand people, but I was among only a handful of whites. There I met a Gullah woman, a quilter who displayed a two-sided story quilt. One side tells the history of African Americans in the Sea Islands, the other side is a visual dictionary of the semiotic signs that slave quilters used to encode information read and used by escaping slaves making their way along the Underground Railroad (Tobin and Dobard, 1999).

Now, let’s imagine that the dominant Gullah culture of my parents’ region had the cultural power, institutions, and resources to survey and measure residents’ literacy, their practices of taking meaning from the environment and making meaning in culturally valued ways. What would their survey look like? What kinds of reading would they identify as critical to their culture, as social practices that lead to enlightened cultural knowledge? For example, how the ability to read quilts for messages is linked to the social and cultural practices of weaving and semiotics that enslaved Africans brought from Africa. How these social practices reveal that their ancestors were not passive victims of slavery but adapted to their struggles to gain freedom through their distinctive, culturally valued practices of making visual texts and displaying these texts in the form of quilts casually, in plain sight, so that they could be read by individuals liberating themselves. The decline of the social practices of this visual literacy and the disappearance of this cultural knowledge would be a significant loss of Gullah heritage. In this hypothetical survey of Gullah visual literacy, my parents and their friends would be judged illiterate and deficient even though my parents and their friends, Reading At Risk, and we know that they are highly skilled in their own groups’ culturally valued literacy practices. Further, their minority community could be judged as lacking the desire and motivation to master the visual literacy practices and cultural knowledge essential for the continued vitality of the dominant Gullah culture.


In reality, the opposite is happening in my parents’ community. I heard from some of my parents’ friends that volunteering at the local school is a discouraging experience. Attending lectures at the university instead of the Gullah heritage celebration, operating with a traditional understanding of literacy, unaware of other literacies in general and Gullah visual literacy in particular, and having cultural institutions like the NEA and media reports of Reading At Risk confirm their ideology about the superiority, universality, and efficacy of their literacy practices, they judge the majority black, Gullah children at the local school as deficient in literacy and this upsets and alarms them.

Is there real cause for alarm? I think so. But not in the way Reading At Risk raises the alarm. The Gullah children at the local school close to my parents’ community, as do all children in U.S. schools, need to master the literacy practices of the middle and upper-middle class mainstream groups because they are keys to accessing opportunity structures for higher education and professions. The wrong approach, that Reading At Risk is perfectly positioned to support, is to require that children leave their cultures and social worlds behind and assimilate and fit themselves to the literacy practices of the dominant social group that has the institutional power and resources to require this. The right approach is to recognize that a research-based conception of literacy reveals that the key assumption of Reading At Risk, based on its extremely narrow definition of reading, is ideological, and its call to action problematic and alarming, as illustrated in this excerpt from the Executive Summary:

If one believes that active and engaged readers lead richer intellectual lives than non-readers and that a well-read citizenry is essential to a vibrant democracy, the decline of literary reading calls for serious action. (National Endowment for the Arts, 2004a, p. ix).

If as a society we really are concerned about encouraging literary reading among all school children then we need to accept these research-based insights as the basis for future policy and pedagogy. First, that in a diverse society like the U.S. there are a multiplicity of literacies. Second, that the literacy we teach in school is narrow, limited and imbued with the disproved ideology that mastery of it, by itself, improves people’s cognition, economic prospects, and builds their characters. Third, that our shared belief in the traditional conception of literacy impedes our ability to recognize and affirm other literacies that our children bring to school. Fourth, that individuals that we may judge as illiterate because of their lack of facility with or background in literary reading may be quite literate, enlightened, and engaged in literacy practices not widely recognized or acknowledged. Fifth, that a conception of literacies benefits us all. For example, exploring visual literacy in Hispanic and African American communities can teach us more about how images construct meanings that reflect the interests of the individuals and institutions that circulate them, and that to be good citizens we need to be visually literate so that we are not unduly influenced by say political imagery (Grabe, Zhou, and Barnett, 2001; Grabe, Shou, Lang, and Bolls, 2000). Sixth, that we can build bridges between the literacies students are socialized into at home and in their communities to the kinds of literacy practices that they need to master in school (see Morrell, 2004).


It alarms me that Reading At Risk is perfectly situated to back a push for an elitist, educational reform agenda that has no regard for students’ cultural practices and that pushes literary reading, imbued as it is with ideologies disproved by research, as something to which all students must assimilate. And this just at the moment when we are uncovering rich, complex literacies with the potential to help those children, like Gullah children, least well served by a narrow, ideological, “just read literature,” agenda.

My critique of Reading At Risk will likely resonate with peers in my literacy research community, and I imagine that others have written similar critiques for similar forums. A final cause of alarm for me is that as academics we don’t often respond quickly and assertively to these kinds of reports in the media. The tone of alarm and impending crisis in Reading At Risk was picked up in media reports across regions in I traveled in this summer, but I didn’t see any critiques of the report in the local and national newspapers that I was reading. I am alarmed that many of us, including me here, are only making our knowledge visible and voices heard in forums for each other, and are not engaging in the wider, public debates.


Bloome, D, Carter, S. P., Christian, B. M., Otto, S., and Shuart-Faris, N. (Eds.). (2005). Discourse analysis & the study of classroom language & literacy events – A microethnographic perspective. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Cowan, P. (1999). ‘Drawn’ into the community: Reconsidering the artwork of Latino adolescents. Visual Sociology, 14, pp. 91-107.

Cowan, P. (2004). Devils or angels: Literacy and discourse in lowrider culture. In J. Mahiri, (Ed.), What they don’t learn in school: Literacy in the lives of urban youth (pp. 47-75). New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

Cowan, P. M. (2005). Putting it out there: Revealing Latino visual discourse in the Hispanic Academic Summer Program for middle school students. In B. V. Street (Ed.), Literacies across educational contexts: Mediating learning and teaching (pp. 145-169). Philadelphia: Caslon Publishing.

Fisher, M. (2003). Open mics and open minds: Spoken word poetry in African diaspora participatory literacy communities. Harvard Educational Review, 73(3), 362-389.

Gioia, D. (2004). Preface. In National Endowment for the Arts. (2004a). Reading at risk: A survey of literary reading in America. (Research Division Report #46). Washington, DC: Author.

Grabe, M. E., Zhou, S., and Barnett, B. (2001). Explicating sensationalism in television news: Content and the bells and whistles of form. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 45(4), 635-655.

Grabe, M. E., Zhou, S., Lang, A. and Bolls, P. (2000). Packaging television news: The effects of tabloid on information processing and evaluative responses. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 44(4), 581-598.

Kirkland, K. N. (2002). Brothers in the spotlight: Effects on critical cultural consciousness of African American males in a suburban high school. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Washington, Seattle.

Kress, G. & van Leeuwen, T. (1996). Reading images: The grammar of visual design. London & New York: Routledge.

Morrell, E. (2004). Linking literacy and popular culture: Finding connections for lifelong learning. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon Publishing.

Morrell, E. & Duncan-Andrade, J. (2004). What they do learn in school: Hip-Hop as a bridge to canonical poetry. In J. Mahiri, (Ed.), What they don’t learn in school: Literacy in the lives of urban youth (pp. 247-268). New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

National Endowment for the Arts. (2004a). Reading at risk: A survey of literary reading in America. (Research Division Report #46). Washington, DC: Author. Available: http://www.arts.gov/pub/ReadingAtRisk.pdf

National Endowment for the Arts. (2004b). Reading at risk: A survey of literary reading in America: Executive summary. [Brochure including cover photo, Preface, & Executive Summary]. Front Cover Photo: Dennis Marsico/CORBIS. Washington, DC: Author.

Solomon, A. (2004, July 10). The closing of the American book. The New York Times, p. A29.

Street, B. V. (2003). What’s “new” in New Literacy Studies? Critical approaches to literacy in theory and practice. Current Issues in Comparative Education [Online], 5(2). Available: http://www.tc.columbia.edu/cice/articles/bs152.htm

Sutton, S. S. (2004). Spoken word: Performance poetry in the black community. In J. Mahiri, (Ed.), What they don’t learn in school: Literacy in the lives of urban youth (pp. 213-233). New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

Tobin, J. L. and Dobard, R. G. (1999). Hidden in plain view: A secret story of quilts and the Underground Railroad. New York: Anchor Books.

Weber, B. (2004, July 8). Fewer noses stuck in books in America survey finds. The New York Times, p. B1.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 14, 2005
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11741, Date Accessed: 12/8/2021 8:23:36 AM

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About the Author
  • Peter Cowan
    Indiana University
    E-mail Author
    PETER COWAN is an Assistant Professor in the Language Education Department at Indiana University. His recent publications include: "Putting it out there: Revealing Latino visual discourse in the Hispanic Academic Program for middle school students" and "Devils or angels: Literacy and discourse in lowrider culture."
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