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Is Reading Better For You Than Watching TV?

A New York Times article (Study Links Drop in Test Scores to a Decline in Time Spent Reading) says there is an association between young people reading less and a decline in test scores. It’s based on the report To Read or Not to Read [PDF link] by the National Endowment for the Arts, whose chairman is Dana Gioia. Here’s an excerpt from the NYT piece:

Americans — particularly young Americans — appear to be reading less for fun, and as that happens, their reading test scores are declining. At the same time, performance in other academic disciplines like math and science is dipping for students whose access to books is limited, and employers are rating workers deficient in basic writing skills.

In an interview Mr. Gioia said that the statistics could not explain why reading had declined, but he pointed to several commonly accepted culprits, including the proliferation of digital diversions on the Internet and other gadgets, and the failure of schools and colleges to develop a culture of daily reading habits. In addition, Mr. Gioia said, “we live in a society where the media does not recognize, celebrate or discuss reading, literature and authors.”

So, what I’m wondering – and this is partly based on past discussions – is what people are really doing instead of “reading for fun”. Surfing the web? Watching TV?

There is an widely-accepted (or at least often stated) assumption that reading is a “smart” activity and is better for you than, say, watching TV or web surfing. I suppose that all depends on what you’re watching and where you’re surfing. I was told time and again while growing up (by teachers, parents, and TV commercials probably sponsored by NEFTA) that reading makes you smarter. This recent NEFTA report seems like some sort of proof. (I’m sure other proof exists out there — I haven’t gone looking. I also suspect there might be contrary evidence as well. Feel free to Google…)

Is reading better for you than watching TV? Does it matter what you watch, or is all casual reading a better activity?

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

37 Comments on Is Reading Better For You Than Watching TV?

  1. I think reading can help you be better at spelling and writing. Just from frequently looking at words and sentence structure, some of it is bound to stick in your memory. Even though you have to read on the internet, grammar and spelling is often held to a much looser standard than a published book would be. Just my opinion, though.

  2. 90 percent of most things are crap. I’d rather watch a TV show in the top 10 percent than read a book in the bottom 90 percent. Is it really better for your mind to read Tom Clancy than to watch The Wire or play a Nintendo game?

  3. Reading expands your lexicon. I would not know half the words I know if TV were my only entertainment source. Now actually “spelling” these new words in my lexicon? Thats a completely different story, one of failure and loss. :-S

  4. As humans add intelligence to their environment they need to carry less.

  5. Well, instead of reading im playing games in my PC, my Wii, and my DS πŸ˜€ but seriously, i think that when you read, your brain has to develop the characters, imagine the voices, invent the costumes, etc, so i think when you read your brain work more πŸ˜€

  6. Matte Lozenge // November 20, 2007 at 4:40 pm //

    Reading has better special effects, sexier women, studlier guys (sometimes vice versa on those last two), more exciting action, better costumes, more realistic sets, than any movie, TV show or game! Because it’s all in the imagination and there’s no limits, not one! How can any multimillion dollar budget beat that? I mean, c’mon.

    Reading is the best for telepathy and psi powers!

    Plus, reading is much more graceful and flexible when filling in backstory, internal dialog, character motive, omniscient POV, and all the rest of the awesome storytelling devices that have been created around the campfire in the past 50,000 years.

    You can tell any movie or TV story in written form, but you can’t tell every written story in visual form. How would you make a movie of “The Persistence of Vision” (1979 Hugo winner)? Not going to happen, not without narrating all of the core action.

  7. I think Cheryl has a good point: watching TV doesn’t help spelling at all. Grammar maybe. Creativity hardly.

    In our school district, we urge (as well as require) students to read more and test scores do improve. Whether this improves test question comprehension or improves the students’ understanding of the world around them is not clearly defined.

    Listening to dialog (TV) and reading dialog (reading) involves entirely different parts of the brain. So it would seem self-evident that reading would cause the reader to learn how dialog “looks”, as opposed to “sounds”. We don’t talk like we write; anyone who does sounds stilted.

    As far as Matta’s comment: he’s right. But more impressive to me is that he reads Varley! One of my favorite unsane authors! Anyway, Shakespeare had a similar problem in his plays, Hamlet in particular. He resolved this by using a lot of soliloquies; movies and TV use voice overs (captain’s log on Star Trek) or flashbacks (Sybil comes to mind).

    And the answer to the question John asked originally: my youngest son spends possible reading time playing video games; mine is spent surfing the web (and posting to blogs). πŸ˜€

  8. joshua corning // November 20, 2007 at 9:28 pm //

    Sending your children to public schools is child abuse…why these people don’t see the brain damage associated with such abuse is beyond me.

  9. Of course reading is better for you than watching TV. Reading is active. Television viewing is passive.

    The NEA report was interesting, but gives few solutions to the problem. Here’s a powerful essay on one way to turn students back into readers:

  10. myzah and naz // May 19, 2008 at 11:01 pm //

    hmm.. we dont really know about this..:-S

    we are having problems in doing our general paper essay.

    the topic is `a day spent without reading is a day wasted. what is your view?’

    so we are trying to compare any activity such as watching tv, which is better..

    we are a bit confused now…

    the topic looks simple..but…need to think more on to it..

    wish us luck..:)


  11. I think that reading is a much better way of expanding your imagination, vocabulary and grammer. I’m sorry old bogus i must disagree with you. How can television improve your grammer sufficiently enough to comment on, it’s like saying speaking to people can be helpfull for your grammer. A bit of a rant i know but it’s not my day sorry.

    Also how many people do you know that when watching adaptations of books as films or television programs can honestly say that that film/program was better than the original text. if they have already read it of course.

    Reading is the best!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  12. Sienna L Sandberg // January 27, 2009 at 12:11 pm //


    There is so much to read about but I am wondering what does T.V. do to you?

  13. I think reading is better then watching t.v., because most of the time reading a book is better then watching the movie of the book.

  14. heo tae hyun // April 7, 2009 at 7:32 am //

    i think watching television is more better than reading book because even a blind man can’t see but a blind man still can hear the sound

  15. I think that reading books is better form of entertainment because when I read a story I can imagine the characters, the places and even I can put myself in the character of the story.On the other hand, watching TV has also its own advantages. For instance, big concerts broadcasts or sport events.However, I personally prefer reading book in my free time than watching TV.

  16. I think its hilarious how half of these people who say that reading is better than watching television can’t even spell or display proper grammar in their comments. What is even more hilarious to me is the people who think that watching television is better. Look at their spelling and grammar mistakes. If you can’t spell simple words or construct a simple sentence how are you going to get a job and if you already have one, who the heck hired you?! I am definitely going to encourage my children to read books when I have them, its so important in the development of the brain.  Reading came long before television ever did and the great thinkers of our past. . . they didn’t have TV.  I haven’t heard of anyone coming even remotely close to the intelligence level of these men and women in our past. JUST THINK ABOUT IT!

  17. Camille, I think instead of: “What is even more hilarious to me is the people…”

    …you mean: “What is even more hilarious to me are the people…”

    And also: “…it’s so important…”

  18. To John D. :

    Your “corrections” of the few minor grammatical errors in Camille’s post are unwarranted and borderline hostile (I’m not sure if this was your intention). Everyone makes minor errors sometimes (including famous authors, which is why editors exist). Perhaps Camille did not “look over” what she wrote (which is often the case when you randomly post a comment on the internet). That doesn’t take away from the validity of the point she was trying to convey. In fact, I quite agree with her.

    The people to which she’s referring have consistently poor punctuation and generally don’t express themselves in a grammatically accurate or structurally coherent way. Now this doesn’t mean they’re stupid. Maybe they’re young, simply don’t read enough/pay attention to lexical rules, or just don’t care enough (which I personally don’t agree with, but whatever). But it is ironic that these same people, who express themselves so poorly, seem to regard reading as such an important activity. Camille was simply pointing out this irony, and the fact that she had two or three minor spelling/grammatical errors is besides the point.


  19. >>But it is ironic that these same people, who express themselves so poorly, seem to regard reading as such an important activity. Camille was simply pointing out this irony, and the fact that she had two or three minor spelling/grammatical errors is besides the point.

    No, the irony (and humor) is in Camille chastising someone’s grammar and spelling using improper grammar and spelling.

  20. Ok, so I’m going to blatantly insult all of you idiots.

    The reason being, is that all of you morons who are defending watching t.v. are so stupid you can’t even spell. For example:

    “i think watching television is more better than reading book because even a blind man can’t see but a blind man still can hear the sound.”

    When you watch t.v. your mind doesn’t work as much and therefore you  won’t enhance your intelligence as much as when you read. It’s scientifically proven. Just start reading books before you look like the idiot who posted the sad comment.


  21. reading helps you. If you watch tv more than it will fry your brain.


  22. I love books. I wish kids would read more than watch tv. No mor tv. Tv. maks your brain worse. Thats why I doint have cable any more

  23. I wonder if reading cannot be lumped into the same category as t.v.  Regardless of the thoughts and/or imagination that is used in either, are you not just being spoon fed some ideas and interjecting a limited amount of data for yourself.  It’s entertainment either way you slice it!  

  24. Mubarak // May 8, 2010 at 5:59 am //

    Can I learn English by watching television?


    The short and simple answer is, “No.” If you are tired and cannot sleep, then watch television. If you enjoy American football or baseball, watch television. If you are too ill to work or walk, watch television. But if you want to improve your English, or your own language for that matter, then read a book or magazine, go to the pub, talk to a friend, study something – anything – in the language, take up collecting American pop songs or English postage stamps, find a hobby which will connect you to the country, write long letters in the language to a penpal in Nepal… Anything, probably, is better for you than watching television.

    Many of the students I have met in London have been advised by their teachers to watch television. Upon what evidence the advice is based I do not know. Do you suppose those teachers could learn Arabic or Chinese by watching television in Cairo or Beijing? I have my doubts. I even came across the case of a language school selling intensive courses of which two hours a day were used for television watching. This made good commercial sense in that it is cheaper to slot a movie into a video deck than employ a competent teacher.

    Maybe students already know that watching TV is useless for language learning, and they are asking me if it is good for them in order to see if my advice in other areas can be trusted. Certainly this approach is used by training managers who want to check a teacher’s competence.

    Research among small children has now made clear that television is worse than useless. It actually does you harm. Some harassed mothers have the habit of parking their babies, like cars, in front of the screen. In Britain, a research unit checked a sample of 300 such babies, all from the same social background. The researchers discovered that at the age of three those infants who watched a great deal of television had a language ability one year behind those of the control group, who did not.

    More interesting is the recent American case of the boy born to deaf parents. The child had perfect hearing. Despite watching television for several hours every day, by the time he reached school age, he could not use spoken language at all, although he was perfectly proficient in using sign language with his parents.

    [In this connection, it is worth noting that I can sometimes detect students who watch too much television because they do not so much listen to what I say as study my face to see what sort of general response they should have.]

    At the moment, the ways of absorbing information are limited. Apart from touch and movement, of which more use could be made when teaching small children, there are only two ways of getting information into the brain: through the eyes and through the ears. The information has to go through the working memory. For most of us, the working memory is extremely limited. As a result, if we are taking in information through the eyes, the working memory closes down input from the ears. A person deep in a book will not hear when spoken to. There are many other simple observations you can make to support this theory. For example, do you hear better when you close your eyes? In the dark, trying to go to sleep, do you become aware of sounds you didn’t hear before? Why do burglars choose to go in the back door of houses when they know the family is watching television in the front room? The point the theory makes is that when you concentrate on looking, you don’t hear so well. If you don’t hear, how can you learn?

    These arguments do not mean that television does not have its uses. Firstly, television can be useful for showing how people do things, for demonstrating manners and customs, for showing how to and how not to. Brilliant training films have been made to show salesmen how to sell, interviewers how to interview, plumbers how to plumb. In language teaching, the mechanics of pronunciation can usefully be demonstrated on film. Of course, at this point, we are moving away from television into demonstration videos made for specific purposes.

    One of the great advantages of video is that it can, like the audio disc, be repeated. Repetition, especially repetition which as much as possible avoids boredom, is the key to language learning. A movie can be recorded, and after being watched in the normal way, can be replayed to listen to, with the video off. The dialogue heard can then be linked in the mind to the memory of the movie or programme as seen some hours or days earlier.

    Under these circumstances, television becomes a tool which can be deliberately used by the active and serious independent student as a memorising aid.

    Finally, whatever country you are in, people watch television, and they talk about it. If you move in circles in which television is an important topic of conversation, then you may be wise to watch a little, so that you can keep up socially. However, in my opinion, you would be better off glancing down the newspaper column of “What’s on TV tonight”, and asking next day the simple questions, “Did you see…?” “What was it about?” “Was it any good?” The answers you get will teach you more English than if you had watched the programme in the first place. For conversation, you don’t have to watch it. You just have to know what’s on.

  25. I thought watching TV is better before. But now i was addicted to a book called “The Vampire’s Assistant” by Darren Shan. It was a true story about vampires. “The Vampire’s Assistant” is just a book of a set. It’s the seccond book. IT WAS COOL. They say the movie was not nice comparred to the book. The movie changed a little of the story.

  26. There should be a reading base established in childhood, just to instill a strong sense of voice in readers at an early age. Once that’s accomplished, as long as said television and film is monitored for quality content, I think it’s just as effective as reading. On the flip side, reading should also be monitored for content, as the bookshelves are overflowing with garbage these days.

  27. TV is cool as in reading u read 5 hrs like a dumzo & you get the same amount of education out of tv in just 30 min READING IS BORINGG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  28. Dear ‘pro’,

    Books are better for your brain.  It is proven that you use more brain power to read than if you just sit and watch T.V.  You do not get the same amount of education because reading pushes your brain to really expand and think about the information you are digesting.  If it is T.V., you are just watching and not absorbing.  Your lack of spelling and grammar is sad and proves my point.

    Respectfully yours, 


  29. Tv is better that tv because is AWESOME

  30. i love tv yea!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!+NZ next to model rule

  31. Mitchell // April 28, 2011 at 9:42 pm //


  32. To those last three total IDIOTS who commented, I would like to say something: Screw you.

    There is no WAY that watching TV is better than reading a good book. Frankly, I don’t really give a shit about how entertaining you find it. the fact is, watching TV practically kills your brain, while reading actually EXCERCISES it and helps your vocabulary and spelling.

    I understand that you would like to prove your point about TV being better. Proving that does not mean talking about how ‘awesome’ it is, it means giving actual PROOF about how it is somehow more beneficial than reading, and by adding those comments, you have made all of us who support books rejoice, because your comments have contradicted what you were trying to prove. thanks for that.

    So basically, you can continue to watch TV to your heart’s content, but in the long run you’re going to suffer, and your brain is going to hurt. Haha to you.

    I also realise that those last three who commented were most likely young children or teenagers who don’t know any better; I’m thirteen. Have fun processing that in your damaged brains.

  33. Dunno about you guys, but I agree with Dandy-ni. READING IS THE BEST!

  34. I am 13 and doing a debate at school. We have the easier side, ‘Reading Is Better Than Watching T.V’. I’ve heard some very good points from both sides, but I just wanted to add a little something I read somewhere:


    Your brain is more active when it’s asleep than it is while watching T.V.


    And to all you people out there who can’t spell, go back to school. 


  35. One of the dullest girls I know is a reader. Why is everyone moaning over incorrect spelling? You’re on a computer typing little words on to a screen. This isn’t some prompt from a high school class that your reviewing with your mommy. Reading is great, NON FICTIONAL (yet interesting) reading is great. But holy crap fictional reading is full of terrible books. I once read an author that took up two pages to explain how this guy over here wanted that hot girl over there. I realize Ebonics is not what authors are going for, but the complete opposite of that is just as bad. Also, incorrect grammar can always be forgiven if in the nessesary context or it’s not obvious that you suck. Dat girl be mine is in a form we should strive to never take, but, also, “He stared at her wantingly; her voluptuous blonde hair curled in semetry as it flowed around her shoulders and down her chest.” – sure this is good to read, but I could take this for an entire page, and then it just becomes a waste of time. And there you have it READING CRAP ABOUT CRAP IS A WASTE OF TIME. I would even argue that by reading so many fictional books you lose your own personality as your divulged in to a world of social darkness because you spend your lonely days at home reading books. Why do you think they have book clubs? People realized how much it sucked to only share a reading with themselves. Movies and TV are full of social interaction. If you want to be well-rounded and smart watch TV, as well as movies, and read non-fiction.

  36. And for the record what Anna says about the brain being more active during sleep is true, but of everything. In REM sleep your brain is more active than running down a mountain, away from an avalanche, while your reading a book on physics.

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